Blockchain + Urban Mobility: Exploring the Potential of the Tech World’s Next Big Thing

By Edmund Sandoval

Blockchain. It’s vast, it’s complicated, and it’s having a moment right now.

At its most basic, blockchain is a global distributed database capable of running on millions of devices. As the Harvard Business Review recently wrote, blockchain is “open to anyone, where not just information but anything of value – money, titles, deeds… intellectual property, and even votes – can be moved and stored securely and privately.” Accordingly, there has been wave after wave of articles singing the praises of this nascent technology and how it will change the landscape of just about everything that emits a digital pulse, including transit and urban mobility applications.

 

With a vested interest in the future of mobile technology, we enrolled the help of moovel’s Research and Development leadership team in order to have a frank and open discussion as to the realistic applications of blockchain in the mobility arena.

 

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Blockchain, What is it good for?

Though the potential for blockchain is vast, we thought it best to winnow out those applications that show real promise. That being said, it seems as though blockchain has a few possibilities when it comes to improving urban transit and its attendant physical and digital manifestations. Those possibilities being: mobility-related transactions and data collection and sharing — bringing siloed data under a single roof (say GPS records from a public bus as traffic ebbs and flows through high-volume corridors). This is due to blockchain’s unique ability to record transactions while establishing secure, nonproprietary identities without the reliance on a centralized intermediary.

 

As to how this security is ensured? Data in the blockchain is secured via cryptography; members of the distributed network are responsible for verifying that data added to the blockchain is real; this is accomplished using a system of three keys (private, public, and the receiver’s key), allowing members to check the veracity of the data while also confirming the source.

 

In other words, blockchain is complicated. And that’s just the reason why it’s difficult to infiltrate and corrupt.

 

Mobility-Related Transactions

With blockchains already serving as the backbone for digital currencies, a natural extension is using the technology for transit transactions. As it stands, multi-modal transportation requires commuters to pay for different tickets in different places. Take for example the individual who travels on suburban rail (one ticket) to the city, rides the subway downtown (a second ticket), then rents a bike for two hours. The integration of blockchain technology could both solve, simplify, and potentially eliminate the requirement of multiple purchases and consequent pain points for the user.

 

As Matthew ‘Skip’ Rotter, moovel’s Vice President of Research & Development  mused, “There’s a potential that you could devise a transit coin or token that an individual would use to pay fares on public transportation or any kind of mobility service provider. It would become a stored value, capable of being used across many different modes of transportation.”

 

To that end, DOVU, a Jaguar-backed blockchain startup, has developed a secure marketplace that will let users offset mobility costs in exchange for their transport data. It’s powered by Ethereum, an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality.

 

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Data Collection and Sharing

One particularly intriguing aspect of blockchain is its versatility when it comes to collecting data. This unique capacity allows it to handle any type of data that can be digitized. As such, blockchain provides a point-to-point consent solution to establish trust between a consenting party and a receiving party, while enabling smart contracts to adhere to regulatory statutes governing when and how consent should be applied. Additionally, the technology itself enforces data integrity and provenance while distributing the most recent state of data among all interested parties.

 

Yet, with so many parties in play (the numerous arms of the public and private mobility sectors), an incentive to incorporate blockchain as a shared primary or supplementary data management resource is necessary.

 

That’s where enforcement of data integrity and the anonymous, nonproprietary nature of the collected data might come into play. Says Rotter, “If a hundred different service providers or agencies or integrated smart technology systems [street signal, sensors, the Internet of Things] started putting their data on a shared blockchain, it would behoove you or your agency to join, because you now have access to all the data on the chain. It makes it so that you can share data rather easily. If you’re willing to give your data, the incentive is self-fulfilling, as you receive access to all the data on the chain because it’s a public, viewable dataset.

 

Rotter continues, “Additionally, it’s likely to be more plausible when it comes to regulatory side of things … Instead of governments saying, ‘You have to give your data to the us,’ there’s already this shared domain, open to all participating parties.”

 

Further, this represents a possible middle ground where public sector agencies and private sector companies could meet. With privately held companies like Lyft and Uber (as well as autonomous vehicle technology companies like Waymo) loathe to share the data they’ve collected, participating in a blockchain would allow both parties to share information without compromising their users’ private information.
As moovel Principal Technologist Zach Babb says, “It’s appealing for governments because [technically] there are no upfront costs. A motivated group of people can decide to start a blockchain with the intent of increasing the sharing of data and increasing awareness of a mobility marketplace. This alone has value.”

 

Mindy Montgomery, moovel’s product manager, feels that regulation around ICOs (initial coin offerings) will further legitimize blockchain. “ICOs are filling a gap in the market for companies and organizations that need to raise money. And, you could potentially see NGOs and nonprofits starting to use blockchain to do good works.” As an example of the latter, Montgomery mentions one Portland, OR based NGO who may be using blockchain to register and track the identity of refugees.

 

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Limitations

Currently, blockchain transactions and validations are notoriously sluggish, sometimes taking hours to complete; a mass transit system would need instant validation of transactions. It would also require offline functionality, something no blockchain is capable of at present.

 

Another potential issue is how currency values fluctuate within the chain. Given the volatility in cryptocurrency markets, guaranteeing that a trip on the bus will be the same price day after day is dubious. Says Babb, “If we want to serve in the community, we need those who are transit-dependent people to be able to ride without it changing their lives one way or the other. A constantly changing transit fare does not equate to good service, no matter who steps on board.”

 

Additionally, a main appeal of blockchain technology represents a potential drawback: its immutability. Once a transaction is agreed and shared across the distributed network it becomes close to impossible to undo or modify, and more and more difficult to reverse over time.  A blockchain with a weakness written into the code makes it more accessible to hackers (as is the case with the blockchain serving Bitcoin). Therefore, a flexible blockchain like the Ethereum is a necessity in order to fix potential flaws.

 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a blockchain-based transit application would need to be universally accessible, a challenge given the vast array of socioeconomic backgrounds among transit riders. Today, it takes significant technical savvy to implement locally, understand and operate. Even the requirement of a smartphone may be prohibitively expensive, so potentially discriminatory.

 

To sum up, while blockchain registers high on potential with regard to the urban mobility arena, it currently ranks low on functional utilization. This is not to say that agencies ought to abandon the implementation of blockchain. Rather, it is to say that its time — its actual time — is yet to come.

 

With special thanks to Zach Babb, Mindy Montgomery and Skip Rotter
— Quotes lightly edited for clarity

 

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Welcome to Move Forward’s weekly news wrap-up, featuring the mobility stories you don’t want to miss. Today’s topics include critiques to President Trump’s new infrastructure plan, a new bill in California that discourages private vehicle ownership, the autonomous vehicle industry’s first fatal accident, and how Houston is increasing bus ridership.

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The fight for infrastructure:

President Trump’s new infrastructure plan is receiving heavy criticism from senior executives at transit agencies around the country. Critics say that the plan, which proposes cuts to federal grants aimed at funding transportation infrastructure and public transit projects, will cause undue harm to these services and hinder ongoing developments that benefits cities and states.

The Washington Post: “Public transit officials are ‘struggling to understand’ Trump’s proposed cuts” by Martine Powers, March 9, 2018.

 

 

Vehicle travel drops in 2017:

New data from the 2017 National Household Travel Survey found that total household vehicle miles traveled dropped by six percent from 2009 to 2017. However, total vehicle miles traveled increased by 8 percent over the same time period.

State Smart Transportation Initiative: “Household car travel dropping steadily” by Chris McCahill, March 19, 2018.

 

 

Forcing people out of their cars:

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explains SB 827, a bill proposed by Sen. Scott Wiener that seeks to solve California’s housing crisis by having the state government change zoning ordinances to allow for greater density near rapid transit stations and high-frequency bus stops. However, there is some debate over what impact the bill will have on automobile usage and ownership, as more density means less parking spaces and room to travel. Vox: “The myth of “forcing people out of their cars”” by Matthew Yglesias, March19, 2018.

 

 

Self-driving’s first fatality:

An Uber Technologies’ self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian this week in the first known fatality involving an autonomous vehicle. In response, Uber has now temporarily pulled its self-driving cars off the roads and suspended testing in cities across the country. Following the accident, supporters of AVs worry that this incident will cause severe regulation and damage public perception of the industry.

The Wall Street Journal: “Uber Suspends Driverless-Car Program After Pedestrian Is Killed” by Greg Bensinger & Tim Higgins, March 20, 2018.

 

 

 

How Houston bucked the national transit trend:

Houston is one of only two U.S. cities to see increased transit ridership in the past two years. In part one of a two-part series, Mobility Lab explains how Houston reimagined its bus network to better serve the demands of travelers throughout the city, prompting this increase in transit ridership.

Mobility Lab: “Houston bucks national trend of transit bus system decline” by Ethan Goffman, March 21, 2018.

 

 

 

Transit ridership declines nationwide:

New analysis by the TransitCenter advocacy group found that transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. last year– including seven cities that serve the majority of riders– with the majority of losses stemming from bus services. According to The Washington Post, “Researchers concluded that factors such as lower fuel costs, increased teleworking, higher car ownership and the rise of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft are pulling people off trains and buses at record levels.”

The Washington Post: “Falling transit ridership poses an ‘emergency’ for cities, experts fear” by Faiz Siddiqui, March 21, 2018.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Sure, You Can Have a Self-Driving Car — But Not Quite Yet

By Edmund Sandoval

“When will the first autonomous vehicles be deployed in the real world?”

It’s a good question, and one we asked here more than two and a half years ago. More specifically, we asked, “When will ordinary people be able to operate automobiles on public highways with no driver intervention?” With 2018 in full swing, and autonomous vehicle technology having taken several bounds, we thought it time to revisit that question.

 

 

 

Is there any more consensus today as to when the driving (and non-driving) masses can expect fleets of autonomous vehicles to deliver them to and from work, play, and everything in between?

 

The answer is yes … with the usual caveats and qualifiers thrown in for good measure. So what can we say with certainty?

 

For starters, we can report that autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the road, and they’re not just circling the block. Testing of fully autonomous vehicles has kicked off in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Washington, and a covert-sounding former Air Force base somewhere on the West Coast.

 

Waymo vehicles, the self-driving arm of Google, have already logged more than 3 million miles on public roads. Since 2014, Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicles—all newly manufactured cars contain Autopilot hardware—have banked more than 1 billion real-world miles courtesy of its customers. Impressive, right?

 

Yet, you can’t simply stroll down the block to the local Waymo dealer (any driving so far has been conducted by Waymo itself), and Tesla’s vehicles require drivers to be present behind the wheel when Autopilot is engaged. That means hands on the steering wheel, sensors to detect whether you’re on a mobile device or your attention is wandering to the backseat, and warnings that flash when any of those things occur. It’s also worth mentioning that Tesla itself does not consider its Autopilot technology to be self-driving technology; rather, as reported by Vox, it deems the option as a kind of advanced cruise control.

 

So, yes, there are autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles on the roads in America, but you can only purchase the one that requires you to, you know, drive it.

 

That’s because the developers of these vehicles and the technologies required to make them work are playing a long game. It’s inevitable, but it’s not going to be quick. Rather, the transition will be gradual.

 

For instance, at the Davos World Economic Forum this year, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company expects to have self-driving cabs on the roads by mid-2019. But what he’s really saying, as reported by thenextweb.com, is that he expects a very small number of autonomous cabs to be on the road by mid-2019. Those self-driving cabs will only handle a very small number of rides—along routes Uber is confident they can handle. And riders will always have the choice of opting for a self-driving cab or person-driven cab. Any increase in self-driving cars will occur over the course of years. (Uber is also involved in a lawsuit with Waymo, which means that forecast could be optimistic.)

 

Where does that leave the other players? Well, depending on whom you talk to, the spectrum is broad, and that’s putting it lightly. Here’s a list that balances outlooks compiled by QuartzMedia.com and driverless-future.com, ranging from the confident to the measured:

 

  • Tesla — 2018: It shouldn’t surprise that this frequent boaster is out front. Tesla and its visionary founder Elon Musk do, however, acknowledge that regulatory obstacles may impact this timeline. Musk has also claimed that, “a Tesla will drive in fully autonomous mode from LA to New York City.”

 

  • Toyota and Nissan — 2020: A couple of years out, these two plan for varying levels of autonomous abilities. Toyota will get you on the highway; Nissan will take you to your favorite ramen joint during rush hour.

 

  • BMW, Ford, and Lyft — 2021: BMW expects to take you on a highway trip and a spin around the city. Ford will do it all (as long as the routes occur on roads that have been mapped). Lyft plans for nearly all rides to be autonomous, but they’ll drive slowly.

 

  • Otto (Uber’s trucking subsidiary) — 2027: We could see fully autonomous broad-scale deployment in about ten years. (Iron Skillet, now is the time to panic.)

 

  • Kia — 2030: An autonomous Kia will pick you up and drop you off. All you’ll do is buckle and unbuckle your seatbelt. Whether this involves giant hamsters is unclear.

 

This is all to say that the consensus is still wobbly, if more dialed-in than just a few years ago.

 

What is apparent, though, is that all options have a ways to go. Every fender bender will be painstakingly investigated, and accidents will make national news, in spite of the tens of thousands of annual deaths related to human-caused collisions. Autonomous cars today are imperfect, about as effective as drivers as their human counterparts. Waymo, the highest-performing of the bunch, required human intervention approximately once every 5,000 miles; Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, required intervention at a hair-raising rate of once every 1.8 miles, as noted by Wired.

 

Additionally, the regulation required to get these vehicles on the roads is likely to be as deep a morass as any, considering the numerous agencies and legislators that would weigh in.

 

Finally, as reported by Forbes, economic considerations will surely short-circuit some of these plans. Upstart companies may challenge established brands in new and emerging markets, and attendant industries — like trucking and delivery, auto insurance providers, energy companies, dealerships, parking lots, and ride-sharing services — may struggle to adapt to a post-driver reality.

 

Time will tell. Sooner rather than later. Maybe.

 

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Video games and AV technology, how VR will affect your commute and career, North America’s most sustainable transit systems, and new mobility in India

Welcome to Move Forward’s weekly news wrap-up, featuring the mobility stories you don’t want to miss. Today, we are sharing additional coverage from moovel Lab’s “Who Wants To Be A Self-Driving Car?” project. Other topics covered include how virtual reality will affect your career, 2017’s most sustainable transit systems, and new mobility options in India spurring positive change throughout the country.

 

AV technology and video games:

Inside EVs provides an explanation of how moovel Lab’s “Who Wants To Be A Self-Driving Car?” technology works, along with images of the machine. “Driving this weird machine sounds a lot like the experience of playing a video game because of the VR goggles, but at the same time, you’re actually moving.”

Inside EVs: “Daimler Unveils Electric, Autonomous, Virtual Reality…What?!?!” by Chris Bruce, October 28, 2017.

 

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Navy base turns into smart city:

A former navy base in Weymouth, Massachusetts is expected to turn into a fully functioning “smart city” through a partnership with LStar and General Electric. In the coming months, GE will install high-tech street sensors, solar panels, and experimental technology to establish the base as “the best new version of a smart city.”

Government Technology: “From Massachusetts Naval Station to Smart City?” by Lane Lambert, October 30, 2017.

 

Sustainable mobility spurs economic prosperity:

Hartwig Schafer, Vice President, Global Themes, of the World Bank, dives into the importance of sustainable mobility in a recent blog post. Schafer argues that investments that enable physical and virtual mobility spur ongoing economic growth, from which everyone in the world can benefit.

Transportation for Development: “Why sustainable mobility matters” by Hartwig Schafer, October 30, 2017.

 

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How VR will affect your commute and career:

Studies show that people commute to work now than ever before as face-to-face communication has been proven to be more productive than telecommunications. Jeremy Bailenson, a psychologist and director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, believes that virtual reality technology will give people the flexibility to work from home without hindering their performance.

Pacific Standard: “The Economics of the Office: Why Do We Still Commute?” by Greg Rosalsky, October 30, 2017.

 

North’s America’s most sustainable transit systems:

North America’s Arcadis published its 2017 Sustainable Cities Mobility Index this week, ranking 23 North American cities on overall sustainability of their urban transportation systems– New York City placed first, followed by San Francisco, Vancouver, and Montreal.

Smart Cities Dive: “Study: NYC home to most sustainable urban transit in North America” by Kristin Musulin, October 30, 2017.

 

AVs on the road… alone:

While current regulations require some form of human control in self-driving cars, new rule changes may soon allow for the testing of truly autonomous vehicles. According to The National Highway Traffic-Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency is now seeking comments on how they can “identify any unnecessary regulatory barriers to Automated Safety Technologies–particularly those that are not equipped with controls for a human driver; e.g., steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal.”

Jalopnik: “The Feds Could Soon Let Autonomous Test Cars On The Roads Without Human Controls” by Alanis King, October 30, 2017.

 

Cooperation will facilitate smart city growth:

Katrina McMurrian, executive director of the Critical Consumer Issues Forum, explains how collaboration across government and private sectors greatly facilitates smart city community projects. Specifically, McMurrian believes that “ongoing cooperation and an acknowledgement of the objectives and priorities of each group will ensure that we can improve the well-being of citizens across the nation.”

Smart Cities Dive: “How collaboration facilitates smarter communities” by Katrina McMurrian, October 30, 2017.

 

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New mobility in India:

Jyot Chadha, Director of the Urban Innovations Program at WRI India, explains how “new mobility” options–such as ride-sharing– are changing urban transportation across Indian cities. In his research, Chadha found that the trend has caused various positive changes throughout the country, including improving access to transport services and shifting people from vehicle ownership to vehicle access.

The City Fix: “Beyond Uber: How the Private Sector is Disrupting Mobility” by Jyot Chadha, October 31, 2017.

 

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Self-driving buses are now a reality for Atlanta

Welcome to Move Forward’s weekly news wrap-up, featuring the mobility stories you don’t want to miss. This week we are sharing company coverage from Curbed and 2025 AD that emphasize moovel, and its employees, as key players in advancing urban transportation. We are also sharing news of Atlanta’s autonomous bus venture, a ranking of Europe’s most mobile cities, the newest trend in mobility, and more.

moovel Lab researcher shares transit tip:

Curbed features tips on how to fix the thorniest transportation problems from the publication’s “favorite urban thinkers” in “101 ways to improve transportation in your city”. Specifically, Joey Lee, research associate at moovel Lab provided Tip #32: “Show, don’t tell. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings.”

Curbed: “101 ways to improve transportation in your city” by Megan Barber, Patrick Sisson, Alissa Walker, September 20, 2017.

 

moovel as critical player in mobility space:

2025 AD reports from the frontlines of IAA 2017, spotlighting moovel as a critical player advancing trends in mobility. moovel’s Randolph Wörl is quoted saying, “With his smartphone, he can pick the optimal way to get from A to B. Does optimal mean the shortest way, the cheapest way or the most comfortable way? It’s the user’s choice.”

2025 AD: “Autonomous Driving is Waiting for Takeoff” by Staff, September 20, 2017.

 

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Atlanta launches autonomous bus:

Atlanta’s self-driving bus, Transdev EZ10, made its first series of trips last week. “The (self-driving) test on North Avenue in the city’s bustling Midtown area meant that Atlanta has become one of the largest urban areas to test autonomous vehicles, joining Sao Paulo and Shanghai”, reported ABC News.

Curbed Atlanta: “Autonomous bus makes inaugural Atlanta run—without catastrophe” by Michael Kahn, September 15, 2017.

 

Europe’s most mobile cities:

POLITICO’s European urban mobility index ranks the continent’s top 20 largest cities based on mobility, using five criteria covering different areas: air pollution, traffic congestion, cycling, and mass transit. This year, Helsinki is ranked first, followed by Copenhagen and Stockholm tied for second.

POLITICO: “POLITICO’s urban mobility index” by Joshua Posaner, Marion Solletty, Ginger Hervy, and Connor Murphy, September 17, 2017.

 

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The smartest cities will include cycling:

The International Cycling Safety Conference will explore how data from vehicles, smart devices, sensors, and other objects in the urban landscape can work to aid the needs and safety of cyclists. As cities look towards becoming “smarter” cyclists and bike shares are key factors of city planning and urban mobility.

Government Technology: “Why Leading Smart Cities Are Often Bike-Friendly Cities” by Skip Descant, September 18, 2017.

 

The newest trend in mobility:

Cities across the country are working to redesign their bus systems to be more convenient for riders. As technology and changing demographics have lead to a steep decline in bus ridership, city governments are trying to reverse that trend by providing riders with better bus routes.

Government Technology: “Bus Network Redesigns Are the ‘Hottest Trend in Transit” by Dan Vock, September 18, 2017.

 

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Planning for MaaS:

Local governments should plan for mass mobility changes in the near future as mobility-as-a-service solutions are predicted to grow across the country. Further, analysis by McKinsey predicts that “average-size cities could realize $600 million in annual societal benefits from mobility advances that reduce traffic accidents and their related injuries and fatalities” by 2030.

Efficient Gov: “Why All Local Governments Must Prepare for Mobility-as-a-Service” by Andrea Fox, September 18, 2017.

 

Bi-partisan bill encourages transit innovation:

Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) have introduced new legislation that would use competitive grants to encourage cities to develop better transportation systems. The bill is intended to spur the creation of innovative urban transit systems, similar to the Smart City Challenge.

Smart Cities Dive: “Senators introduce measure to spur transit innovation” by Kim Slowey, September 19, 2017.

 

P3 partnership shares data for safer transportation:

Ohio has entered a public private partnership in an effort to make the state’s transportation smarter and safer through data analytics. As part of a centralized contract, the P3 partnership will be available to the DOT, state departments and local governments to promote the idea of sharing data and information in a standardized way.

Government Technology: “Ohio Turns to Private Sector Data Analytics for Smarter, Safer Streets Transportation” by Ben Miller, September 21, 2017.

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.