Autonomous vehicles are racing into reality. It is no longer a question of if but when our roads will be lined with robots that will taxi human passengers from A to B. A handful of US states such as California have already legalized testing of self-driving cars, and the growth of the movement was highlighted when an Uber autonomous vehicle was involved in a fatal collision in Arizona last week.

Several companies are already hard at work creating autonomous driving technology, from legacy car makers to urban mobility upstarts and consumer tech titans. Most consumers see a future in which driving is an unnecessary inconvenience. Despite recent fatal collisions, a survey of 5,500 consumers in 27 cities in 10 countries by the Boston Consulting Group found that 58% of respondents said they would take a ride in a self-driving vehicle, and 69% said that they would take a ride in a partially self-driven car.

If that is indeed our future, then car-sharing will almost certainly be part of it. Already, ride-sharing taxi pioneers Uber and Didi Chuxing are testing autonomous versions of their fleets on public roads. And motor makers General Motors, Nissan, Mercedes and Bosh have all either tested a self-driving taxi service or are planning to do so. A BCG study found that approximately 325 million drivers will use car-sharing services by 2021.

If that future is to be realized, the technology behind autonomous vehicles will need to evolve, and quickly. Self-driving cars rely upon vast quantities of data to enable machine learning, which will guide its decisions. A self-driving car collects more than a terabyte of data each day, enough to fill 1,400 CDs.

The vehicles will also need a technology to enable machine-to-machine payments for services such as fuel and tolls, which would be similar to the Internet of Things (IoT). There remains debate about which tech is best suited to the task, but the blockchain is one of the front-runners.

The blockchain enables the fast and friction-less transfer of assets or data over the internet. It emerged with the controversial cryptocurrency bitcoin, but blockchain has since come into its own, powering everything from the transfer of medical records to clearing bank remittances. Blockchain has remained true to its mission of being a decentralized peer-to-peer transfer mechanism for near instant and free payments.

The technology could be applied to payments related to autonomous vehicles, for example for working out the price of a shared-vehicle taxi and taking payments for services, with the blockchain able to scale up to potentially millions of transactions per second — much faster than banks’ legacy payment systems.

It could also to facilitate the transferring of ownership of the vehicles themselves, just like how you might rent a car via the web today. A platform such as RxEAL could facilitate a smart contract for the renting or use of an autonomous vehicle. It could also handle the depositing of funds which would be stored securely on the Ethereum blockchain during the rental period, or until mutually approved action is initiated, with no ability for lessor to unilaterally access the deposited funds.

Enthusiasts claim that using the blockchain to facilitate car-sharing makes for a safer system in which trust is no longer required. After all, the blockchain has no one central authority governing transactions and so no one user can gain control over it. And a smart contract such as RxEAL’s would solve the issue of trust involved in handing over security deposits to the other party for storage. Although this is true in practice, there are some hurdles that need to be overcome for the blockchain to empower autonomous vehicle sharing. 

For example, in a decentralized solution, there is no mechanism to account for unforeseen issues, such as damage done to a vehicle, or if it is lost. There has to be a mechanism in place to claim losses or damages caused by the renting party, so that a vehicle owner can recoup losses, and the solution needs to be aligned with jurisdictional regulations, which differ from US state to state. It is a similar case for peer-to-peer sharing of all assets, from power tools to industrial equipment and condos.

While there are roadblocks on the way to autonomous vehicle sharing, blockchain can smooth plenty of the bumps. A safer, quicker and more reliable service beckons with the blockchain.

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