Blockchains, Smart Contracts, and the Future Of Transportation Security

Tomorrow’s vehicles will be computers on wheels, connected to each other, the infrastructure, and the internet.

While officials across the country tout the potential benefits of this increased connectivity, it is also the source of considerable anxiety.  Protecting these vehicles from hackers is turning out to be a hard nut to crack, but some experts at the U.S.DOT believe blockchain could be the magic bullet.

“Cybersecurity is a major concern,” remarked U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao while addressing a packed room at the Autonomous Vehicle Symposium on July 10, 2018.  “The hacking of AV software could result in privacy violations, theft, or even the acquisition of a vehicle by terrorists,” she continued.

If you think Secretary Chao’s warnings are speculative, think again:  there have been 1.4 million vehicles impacted by the first, and only, cybersecurity-related recall, which occurred in 2015 when Fiat Chrysler recalled vehicles after researchers used a wireless connection to turn off a Jeep Cherokee’s engine as it drove.

But what Secretary Chao failed to mention was a recent report by the U.S. DOT John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, which examines various blockchain applications in transportation – including blockchain’s potential for preventing cyber-attacks on automated vehicles.

With vehicles continuously connected to their surroundings, the report notes, “the attack surface for hackers is broad, touching most in-vehicle systems via a wide range of external networks such as Wi-Fi, cellular networks, service garages, toll roads, fuel stations, traffic lights, and aftermarket devices.”

The report’s conclusion: blockchain’s inherent value proposition of immutable transactions, and decentralized consensus through transparent nodes, may have a role to play in certain aspects of securing automobiles form cyberattacks.

For instance, vehicles are produced with more and more electronic control units – from 30 to 100 in automated vehicles – and each unit’s operating system will likely be updated over the air.  When receiving these updates from potentially unsafe Wi-Fi networks at fuel stations, homes, dealers, etc., blockchain can validate the authenticity of these critical peer-to-peer software updates, instead of relying on the central server of an automotive components manufacturer.

Another aspect of AV security resides in the supply chain, where original equipment manufacturers typically integrate hundreds of components they receive from multiple suppliers around the world, often unaware of security flaws in these components.  Blockchain could serve as a trusted ledger of maintenance activities performed on these components throughout their lifetime.

While blockchain is not particularly new technology, its application to the world of transport is relatively nascent.

A blockchain is a digital, openly shared, immutable, and a decentralized log of transactions.  The concept was introduced in the late 2000’s as a virtual scaffolding for transactions using the digital currency bitcoin.

The idea behind bitcoin was to remove banks from financial transactions, by allowing non-trusting members to interact over a network in a verified way without a trusted intermediary.

Every bitcoin transaction is stored on a blockchain that is continuously updated across a network of thousands of computers.  Consequently, if you want to sell a piece of art to your neighbor, for example, you can verify that your neighbor indeed possesses the requisite amount of bitcoin, and execute the transaction, all without the involvement of a bank.

Though blockchains were made for finance, smart contracts make blockchains applicable beyond finance, to industries like transportation.

Smart contracts, according to another Volpe Center report, are software, not actual contracts.  But like a contract, they set parameters that parties to a transaction agree upon.  Terms of the agreement are written directly into lines of code, and smart contracts refer to blockchains as a source of truth.

It is precisely these smart contracts that enable blockchain to, for instance, validate the authenticity of peer-to-peer software updates, or act as a trusted ledger of maintenance activities performed on vehicle components.  The parameters for each of these transactions – or over the air software updates – can be baked directly into the code, and confirmed for their validity.

The technology does have it’s limitations, however, which is why the Volpe report is careful to note that blockchain’s effectiveness in securing automobiles is limited to certain situations.  “The time required for participating mining nodes to come into consensuses of transaction blocks is several minutes,” according to the report.  For critical updates that need to happen in mere seconds, blockchain might not be suitable.  On the other hand, “use of blockchain for overnight updates would be appropriate,” the report concluded.

Regardless of whether or not blockchain is the silver bullet against vehicle cyber-threats, one thing is for sure: traditional enterprise security strategies, which have focused on cutting off outside access, are not optimal for automated vehicles, where secure systems within the vehicle must interact with many other secure systems.

Building a walled garden, figuratively speaking, is no longer an option.  But a chained-linked fence – like blockchain – just might be the solution.


Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Transportation – The New Villain in America’s Fight Against Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Transportation and clean air – if you don’t already know – are at odds with one another.

For two years running, transportation has surpassed all other sectors as the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to data released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in March.

But there is good news.  The transportation industry is on the brink of a revolution that could dramatically lower the sector’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, and the connected and automated vehicle (CAV) could well be the hero.

To appreciate how serious the problem is, it would help to start with these facts: for decades the top carbon emitter in the U.S. was the power sector, in large part because of coal.  But that all changed in 2016 when, for the first time, transportation outpaced all other sectors – more than agriculture, industry, and yes, even electricity generation – accounting for 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

And while cars, trucks, commercial aircraft, and railroads all contribute to transportation sector emissions, light-duty passenger cars and trucks – basically your typical commuter car and pick-up truck –  account for 60 percent of all transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

Needless to say, if you care about the environment, you better start caring about transportation – and I’m not just talking about Toyota Prius owners.

Just as renewables like wind and solar have been steadily decarbonizing the power sector, connected and automated vehicles show tremendous promise when it comes to mitigating transportation sourced greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance, in another EIA report, by 2050 connected and autonomous vehicles could lead to a 44 percent reduction in fuel consumption.  And last year, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released a report, along with a plan of action for vehicle electrification, automation, and ride-sharing in urban areas, where they estimate the potential ceiling for reducing carbon emissions from automobiles at an astonishing 80 percent.

Electrification, automation, and ride-sharing – which are all part of the CAV promise – couldn’t come at a better time, especially since they show so much potential in the context of urban congestion.

Studies have found that 30 percent of downtown traffic is caused by people circling around in search of curb parking.  One study even found that 45 percent of drivers interviewed while stopped at traffic lights in Brooklyn said they were searching for parking.

But no study captures the absurdity of downtown traffic more than Donald Shoup’s work in The High Cost of Parking.  In one 15-block business district, Shoup concluded curb parking created 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel, equivalent to four trips to the moon, wasting 47,000 gallons of gas, and producing 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Just chew on that for a second; and once the taste of carbon dioxide subsides, remember that’s all happening in one small business district.  Imagine the cumulative effect of cruising in the U.S.  Shoup, it should be noted, went on to win a National Excellence Award for this body of work, one of the highest decorations awarded by the American Planning Association.

I don’t know about you, but regardless of whether you care about the environment, why spend all that time circling around when you could potentially hop into a connected, automated, and even electric Uber, or Lyft, or Sidecar, or Taxify, or public bus for that matter, and get dropped off at the door?

Sounds pretty good to me.

But like all revolutions, there are no guarantees.  On the heels of the EIA study, the Center for American Progress – which the EIA references – painted a bleaker picture.  The summary of their concerns: “All this potential to reduce emissions could be wasted, and could be made worse than it is even today.”  After all, they argue, what if people love automated vehicles so much that they zip around in them all day, from one place to the next, thus exceeding our current average miles traveled per vehicle?

Indeed, in this scenario, without a significant rise in the electrification of vehicles to offset the risk of increased vehicle miles traveled, such a concern could prove disastrous.

Which is why we must remember that there are no guarantees in this revolution – or any revolution for that matter.  But one thing is for sure: our ability to reduce transportation greenhouse gases depends on strong, well-funded public-private partnerships like the ones found at the Wisconsin AV Proving Ground, where scientist and engineers are working tirelessly to develop the requisite technologies, and business leaders, civil servants, and legislators can congregate to develop policies, best practices, and industry standards that will maximize the potential of this technology.

Just as the future of the U.S. power sector MUST be green, sustainable, and renewable, the future of U.S. transportation MUST be electric, connected, and automated – at least until we discover better solutions.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.