The real vs imagined decentralized IOT

When it comes to the Internet of Things, there has been a lot of speculation on how IoT devices will operate. From drones delivering prescription medications to smart refrigerators ordering groceries autonomously – there has been a myriad of hypothesized inventions for the smart world of the future. Some of the most anticipated technologies are self-driving vehicles. However, self-driving vehicles don’t always remove the middleman and perpetuate autonomy. Google searches will show the fascinating scientific achievements that the IoT has obtained over the years. Although science fiction has long postulated the existence of these autonomous devices, their existence is no longer a question of “if” but “when.” While futurists and blockchain enthusiasts are eager for current technology to catch up to our imaginations, a little clarification to the limits and potential of the traditional IoT and autonomous cars needs to be addressed.

A Decentralized IoT  

On January 18, 2017, Stephan Tual, COO of the Ethereum-based project, Slock.it, published a medium article titled “Self-driving doesn’t mean Autonomous.” In this piece, Tual begins with a simple yet profound statement:

”Self-driving (or self-flying etc.) vehicles aren’t autonomous by default. Yes, they can drive themselves from A to B, but autonomy doesn’t end at removing operators.”

Tual continues by making the point that “the savings incurred by operating autonomous vehicles could be negated by the high costs of centrally overseeing a large fleet – with partner channels management as a prime suspect.”

To clarify, in order to perpetuate an autonomous world, there needs to be more than just self-driving vehicles. The public has an insatiable appetite for futuristic autonomy, but in order for that to happen, there are various components that are needed to fully implement that kind of economy. In terms of self-driving cars, one of the biggest hurdles the IoT industry is faced with is the costly refueling and recharging challenge. Since both electric and gas-powered vehicles require the replenishment of energy, solving the problem of how autonomous vehicles will self-refill is a major step for Slock.it and other developers. According to Tual, a database of fuel/electricity suppliers would need to be created by some sort of centralized custodian with the ability to update the system on a regular basis. Through the implementation of an autonomous objects platform, a self-operating ground or air vehicle could query a database of energy suppliers on its way to the pump or charge station, and negotiate the cost of refueling/recharging with third party stations, without the need for gas or electricity contracts to be negotiated in advance. This process would allow vehicles to “consistently operate at optimal efficiency, by deciding whether or not it is worth traveling off their scheduled course by an extra 3 kilometers to a station where cheaper refueling can lead to cost savings. That decision is taken onboard the vehicle, by the vehicle, and not on a cloud server. Fleet management becomes genuinely decentralized.”

Additionally, Tual notes that service providers seeking to build these stations in the permission-less infrastructure would be able to streamline projects, while simultaneously reducing costs and generating healthy competition. This process would be facilitated through the use of smart contracts and industry-specific interfaces.

Tual elaborates:

“… by creating industry-specific interfaces which when put together form an IoT taxonomy, a task made possible thanks to Ethereum’s contract ABIs [Application Binary Interface]. A vehicle would search a purpose-build registry for contracts that match a particular interface, for example searching for functions named ‘buyFuel()’ and having a ‘fuel_cost_per_gallon’, ‘latitude’ and ‘longitude’ parameters. Determining which partner to select is done entirely locally in the vehicle. In fact, because the vehicle is always updating its copy of the blockchain, it doesn’t even need to ‘pull’ or make a request for updated conditions either. The blockchain’s state automatically reflects any changes, in the form of smart contract being updated, deployed or retired. All of this takes place free of fragile workflows or human control and guarantees the machines operate at maximum efficiency, around the clock.”   

Real World Implementation

Facilitating the processes outlined by Tual requires the use of a car e-wallet linked to a blockchain that would use cryptocurrency such as Ether (ETH) or bitcoin (BTC) to make micropayments for the numerous services involved with vehicles. Besides refueling/recharging, there is also parking, the opening of gates, toll roads, and other maintenance services cars may require. A video displaying smart cars interacting with IoT devices on the blockchain can be found on the ZF company website. The video displays examples of how vehicles can execute micropayments, recharge, pay for parking, and even be rented out to operate and generate income within the sharing economy. Project Oaken is an Ethereum-based IoT project that recently created a video of a Tesla on the blockchain that utilizes smart contracts to execute the payment of Ether to a blockchain toll booth system.  

The Big Picture

In order for IoT to do everything a developer may have dreamed about, changes in regulation and infrastructure will need to occur alongside innovation for the devices themselves. Before the vision of self-driving cars; autonomously parking, recharging, and paying tolls can come to fruition, a cooperative revamping of multiple systems has to take effect. Understanding the infrastructures needed for IoT development is as important as the creation of self-driving cars themselves. While the mainstream public may think traditional, centralized self-driving vehicles are autonomous – they couldn’t be farther from the truth. With a decentralized, blockchain-based self-driving car, autonomy can truly be achieved through smart contracts.

Tual sums up this notion:

“Ethereum is a match made in heaven for this type of project. It ultimately allows us to provide our clients with direct M2M [machine-to-machine] payments solutions, opening the door to not just self-driving vehicles, but truly autonomous ones.”

Los Silva is a writer and filmmaker who has collaborated with tech and design companies. His interest in Ethereum stems from emerging creative applications that allow artists control of their work through blockchain technology.
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