Today if your car wants to talk to another car, a service provider or just an infotainment source, it needs to go through a third-party network. That can cost you money in two ways: you pay the third party and you forgo the chance of being paid for the use of your data.
Toyota means to solve both problems using blockchain technology, the networking method behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Blockchain allows connected computers to share data and even software, and to do so securely. This matters for all sorts of computer-assisted driving, above all for self-driving technology.
“Hundreds of billions of miles of human driving data may be needed to develop safe and reliable autonomous vehicles,” said Chris Ballinger, director of mobility services and chief financial officer at Toyota Research Institute, in a statement. “Blockchains and distributed ledgers may enable pooling data from vehicle owners, fleet managers, and manufacturers to shorten the time for reaching this goal, thereby bringing forward the safety, efficiency and convenience benefits of autonomous driving technology.”
Distributed ledgers allow a lot of independent computers to keep track of the sharing of data. That way the record can’t be tinkered with if one machine is compromised. Up until now the technology has mostly involved financial transactions, but any sort of exchange or chitchat can be handled in the same way.
Car makers might use blockchain to restrict the sharing of data—say, from a robocar test fleet—to their partners and to road-safety regulators. Car owners might use it to charge for the data their cars churn out or to give up a measure of privacy in return for a service. Car owners could choose to give an insurer moment-by-moment driving data to get a lower premium—so long as they drive safely.
All car makers and suppliers are struggling to handle the gusher of data provided and demanded by cars, and the burden will grow once semi-autonomous cars hit the road. IEEE Spectrum spoke to Michael Tzamaloukas, vice president for autonomous drive and advanced driver assistance systems at Harman, a leading auto supplier (including to Toyota, although Harman is not now using blockchain tech). He said Harman is already getting a data deluge from its cloud-based Map Live Layers, which combines data from a car’s sensors with other data shunted from other cars via the cloud.
“More and more content is being generated, particularly the premium cars, and in three to five years, you’ll be getting much more than you do from a smartphone,” says Tzamaloukas. “It will greatly benefit a number of safety apps—kind of like an invisible airbag. It will make your ride more comfortable, more informed; you’ll be able to use data from other cars to see beyond the corner.”
Toyota and its main partner, the MIT Media Lab, are recruiting companies as to develop applications based on the blockchain system. It listed, in its statement, Berlin-based BigchainDB, which is building the data exchange; Oaken Innovations, based in Dallas and Toronto, which is developing a mobility token to pay tolls and other fees; Commuterz, in Israel, which is working on a carpooling application; Gem, in Los Angeles, which is working with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions; and Japan’s Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Services.
Toyota’s initiative forms part of a broader coalition of groups from completely different industries that are using blockchain tech to modernize data sharing. The group, called the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, includes Merck, State Street Corp., JPMorgan Chase, BP, Microsoft, IBM and ING.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.