Opinion: a blockchain to manage self-driving cars could lead to the development of a cleaner and less congested city

By Hitesh Tewari, Lero 

The traditional way of banking as most of us know it sees a bank maintain a private ledger that contains the account balance of each of its customers and a record of any transactions. Over many decades, this has resulted in the creation of all-powerful banking behemoths that have huge insight into our spending habits. Today, they can make use of artificial intelligence techniques to predict our future financial and purchasing decisions.

Back in 2008, a paper describing a new digital currency called Bitcoin quietly surfaced on the internet. This system turned traditional banking on its head, and replaced the centrally controlled private ledger with a decentralised public ledger. This system, in which an identical copy of the ledger is maintained by each participant in the network, made everyone collectively the bank.

The decentralised ledger is now more commonly referred to as a blockchain. A blockchain is an append-only, immutable record of all coin transfers in the Bitcoin network. However, the blockchain is a much more versatile animal and can be used to store all types of transactional data, such as bills of lading for tracking shipping containers, serial number of products for traceability and authenticity of goods, land registry details to quickly determine ownership etc.

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From RTÉ's Lyric FM, Culture File's report from FutureFest2015 on the blockchain

Another futuristic concept that has been gaining increasing attention of the public in recent years is the development of so called "smart cities". A smart city is one where there is an enhanced use of technology to reduce energy usage, cut down on pollution, increase productivity and enhance the overall quality of life of the citizens that live within it. One of the key components of a smart city will be self-driving cars which are usually viewed as a replacement for a personal car, which drives a person to work and remains parked until the owner is ready to leave their workplace. Self-driving cars can be much more useful than this and can aid in the development of a cleaner and less congested city.

In a smart city setting, your self-driving car will drive you to work as usual. But once it has dropped you off, it becomes a public service vehicle for the rest of the day, thereby eliminating the need for parking spaces in the workplace. In this way, we can reduce the overall number of cars and other vehicles required to service the needs of citizens.

While you're at your desk, a self-driving car will be able charge itself at a forecourt and get itself a valet when required. It can also act as your personal assistant by collecting mail and parcels from the post office and groceries from the local supermarket, and then driving you back home in the evening from work. Taking this concept to the extreme, one could envisage a scenario where none of us would own a car, but instead avail the services of a self-driving car from time to time as required.

The blockchain an be used to store the requests and responses of various entities that comprise a smart city

So how can we turn this concept into reality? We believe that the blockchain could play a vital role in the development of smart cities. Since the blockchain is a publicly accessible distributed ledger, it can be used to store the requests and responses of various entities that comprise a smart city.

Take for example, a request by a user wishing to use a self-driving car. If one's personal calendar could be linked anonymously to the blockchain, then requests could be automatically uploaded to the blockchain in advance for booking a self-driving car to drive the person to their desired destination.

We could take this one step further and co-ordinate multiple user calendars to create an efficient carpooling system. Each person would get charged for their part of the journey and could automatically pay for it using a blockchain backed digital currency. Self-driving cars could monitor the blockchain to pick up jobs and announce jobs that have been accepted by them via the blockchain.

Such cars that are in continuous use will be required to be charged from time-to-time. Forecourts will advertise the number of free charging stations that they have on the blockchain, which in turn will allow self-driving cars to co-ordinate their charging activities such that the load on the forecourt and electricity grid is spread out evenly. In effect, we can use the blockchain to effectively manage the transport needs of citizens in a smart city.

READ: Working on the blockchain gang

READ: The ethics of smart cities

The scenario outlined above is just one example of how blockchain technology can be deployed in a smart city setting. The blockchain can be used for diverse purposes such as trading excess energy produced from renewable sources, storing healthcare records, engaging citizens in the decision making process by allowing them to vote via the blockchain and much more.

Dr Hitesh Tewari is a researcher at Lero, the Irish Software Research Centre. He is also a CONNECT investigator and an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ