Autonomous Vehicle Safety Reports Leave a Lot to Desire

Madison, Wisconsin – On the heels of the California Department of Motor Vehicle annual autonomous vehicle disengagement report, Beijing’s Innovation Center for Mobility Intelligent (BICMI) published its 2019 survey of self-driving vehicles being tested on local roads.

Both reports, which hinge on tracking disengagements – or the frequency at which human safety drivers were forced to take control of their autonomous vehicles – are a stark reminder of how little we have to measure the safety and performance of autonomous vehicles.

“Comparing disengagement rates between companies is worse than meaningless. It creates perverse incentives,” said Bryant Walker Smith, associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and an expert in self-driving cars.

Smith explained to the Verge that if he were to register in California and never test, for instance, he’d look good. “If I wanted to look even better, I’d do a ton of easy freeway miles in California and do my real testing anywhere else,” he continued.

California law requires that every company testing autonomous vehicles on public roads submit data on the number of miles driven and the frequency of disengagements. Beijing is one of the few cities globally to mandate that autonomous car companies disclose their disengagement results too.

According to Verge coverage of the California report, the total number of autonomous miles driven in California last year rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable increase in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise,, Waymo, Zoox, and Lyft.

But the report has generated considerable discussion about whether disengagements communicate anything meaningful. Echoing similar sentiments as Smith, Waymo, which drove 1.45 million miles in California in 2019 and logged a disengagement rate of 0.076 per 1,000 self-driven miles, said that the metric “does not provide relevant insights” into its technology. Cruise, for their part, drove 831,040 miles last year and reported a disengagement rate of 0.082, said the “idea that disengagements give a meaningful signal about whether an [autonomous vehicle] is ready for commercial deployment is a myth.”

Meanwhile, Venture Beat reported that a total of 77 autonomous vehicles from 13 China-based companies covered over 646,000 miles on Beijing roads during 2019, according to the BICMI. That’s up from the 95,000 miles eight firms drove in 2018.

The BICMI report doesn’t break out disengagement numbers by company or vehicle, but it said 86% of disengagements in 2019 resulted from human takeovers. Examples might include drivers tinkering with data-recording equipment, changes in planned routes, or “personal reasons” (like bathroom breaks). The remaining 14% of disengagements were attributable to some form of mechanical or software system failure.

The inherent weakness of using disengagements to measure the success of autonomous vehicles are glaring.

For starters, the very nature of public road testing means that the environments are inconsistent. A mile in Palo Alto is very different than a mile in downtown San Francisco.

Also, in California, the vague DMV definition of disengagement means that car companies aren’t following the same protocols. The DMV defines disengagements as “deactivation of the autonomous mode when a failure of the autonomous technology is detected or when the safe operation of the vehicle requires that the autonomous vehicle test driver disengage the autonomous mode and take immediate manual control of the vehicle.” That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

For example, a self-driving car owned by GM Cruise ran a red light in San Francisco after the safety driver took control to avoid blocking a crosswalk. But the company didn’t include the incident in its report because, according to Cruise’s interpretation, the human driver didn’t act out of safety concerns or a failure of the autonomous system.

And finally, nowhere in either report is it specified which advanced driver assist system (i.e. adaptive cruise control) failed and precisely what event triggered the disengagement.

The result is that it is impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison about the performance and safety of these vehicles.

And if you thought you could turn to the federal government for better data, think again. Most major players in the US have also submitted voluntary safety reports to the federal government as part of the Department of Transportation’s voluntary guidance. But these reports read more like marketing documents.

The reality is that if the public wants to understand how safe self-driving vehicles are, one alternative is to consider leveraging methods and techniques currently being used by insurance providers. After all, insurance groups have a lot at stake when it comes to understanding the quality of these systems.

When the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) set out to evaluate the success rates of active lane-keeping systems in 2018, for instance, it tracked the number of times the vehicle had to overcorrect after crossing clearly marked lane lines. Why? Because evaluating the safety of these vehicles requires the collection of relevant and targeted data about specific advance driver assist systems.

An alternative approach, according to Smith, would be for companies to release testing summaries with details and context about each disengagement. While not ideal, the thought is that with more information about precisely which system failed and under what conditions, the public could conceivably start teasing out some meaningful conclusions. But no company to date has done that.

And short of any new regulations set forth by public authorities, the industry may have to forge its own path by developing their own standards. Dmitry Polishchuk, head of Russian tech giant Yandex’s autonomous car project, noted that Yandex hasn’t released any disengagement reports because they are “waiting for some sort of industry standard” to overcome the discrepancies in how companies are defining and recording disengagements. The right industry standard could help overcome this test-and-don’t-report alternative.

The good news is the SAE has created a task force to provide definitions, information and best practices to support verification and validation of self-driving systems. It’s still unclear, however, when we can expect to see the fruits of their labor.

At this point, there is little reason to expect much will change in 2020, which leaves us in a frightful situation: There are currently millions of miles being driven by automated vehicles on public roads, and no one can agree about what data we should use to measure their safety.

If that’s not reckless driving, then what is?


Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Eric Nutt is the Chief Technology Officer of Mandli Communications, Inc., and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Automated Vehicles. Follow Eric on LinkedIn.

How Cities Can Digitize Their 21st Century Mobility Policies

For the better part of the last century, cities used analog systems like lane markings and curbs to manage their transportation network.  As we move into the new digital age of transportation, cities are finding innovative ways to digitize their transportation policies.

Every morning on my way to work, I drive through what could be the most over-engineered intersection east of the Mississippi.

This rather typical four-way crossroads is packed with an atypical and whopping 36 traffic lights (if you count each red, yellow and green light), 8 pedestrian crosswalk signals, 6 strategically placed video cameras, and a spattering of street signs – 14 specifically – indicating street names, speed limits, turn lanes, parking and bus zones. All that gear to manage one intersection!

When I described the scene to a friend over lunch one day, he joked: “That, there, is the face of big government and the visible overreach of the administrative state.”

Overreach or not, cities have always been responsible for managing their surface transportation network, and for the better part of the last century, they did so using analog systems like stop signs, lane markings, curbs, and police officers.

Today, however, we are moving into a new digital-age of transportation with ride-hailing, micro-mobility, drones, and autonomous vehicles. If cities are to live up to their mandate in this brave new world, they must not only have policies in place about this digital world, but they also must embed policies directly into this digital world – in other words, digitize their policies.

Afterall, decisions are happening at lightning speeds in the digital realm. From the GPS-based route optimization when you order a ride, to the payment systems for the ride service, to the safety-critical vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems, the digital world is where the action is happening.  And remember, part of the promise of autonomous vehicles is that they will one day remove the human from the driving equation entirely, ultimately shifting all of the decision making to the digital world.

Which is why Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, and other cities jumped to form the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), whose mission is to govern the new Mobility Data Specification (MDS).

MDS is a set of data specifications and data sharing requirements that force mobility companies to report basic data on the location and use of their equipment. While MDS, in its current form, is focused on e-scooters and e-bicycles, it was originally developed by the LA DOT to better manage AV deployments, and extending it to AVs remains a goal.

But MDS alone won’t enable digital traffic management.  Cities will also need a high definition map of the city, or as the latest “Technology Action Plan” [pdf] by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation describes it, a “digital infrastructure that mirrors the current hardscape and that gives transportation assets like curbs, streets, sidewalks, airspace, and subterranean space a digital identity.”

That’s right, code is the new concrete, and a key tenet of OMF’s mission is that the city is going to own and govern its digital twin.

“Going forward, each city must manage its own Digital Twin, which will provide the ground truth on which mobility services depend,” states the OMF bylaws [pdf].

The result is that all stakeholders—both cities and the private mobility companies—will operate off the same digital map, with MDS acting as the data and communication protocol.

By combining MDS with a digital twin of the urban environment, cities will finally be in a position to digitally – and actively – manage private sector service providers.

For instance, a city could digitize their AV policies directly into the digital twin—in other words, embed into the universal map rules like speed limits and where and when vehicles can park, instead of relying on street signs that AVs may or may not recognize.

Furthermore, using the MDS protocol, not only could a city track precisely where and when AVs are operating, but policy violations could be enforced in real-time, instead of relying on snail mail for ticketing.

There are around 90 cities in the world piloting MDS, according to the Executive Director of OMF, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who shared his estimate at a recent conference in Los Angeles.

One thing is for sure, byzantine analog methods for managing transportation aren’t likely to cut it any longer. City officials need new tools and technologies that allow them to fulfill their role as planners, operators, investors, regulators, and enforcers of the surface transportation network.

And though some folks, like my friend, may find solace in a future with fewer analog systems lining our streets, don’t be fooled by the digital regs hiding beneath the surface.


Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

The Best Kept – and Dirtiest – Secret About 5G

The Trump administration unveiled a major push Friday to accelerate the rollout of 5G infrastructure.  Under the new plan, the Federal Communications Commission will release the largest trove of U.S. wireless spectrum ever to be auctioned off.  The FCC also proposed a $20 billion fund to expand broadband in rural America, connecting up to 4 million households and small businesses to high-speed internet.

The table is set; the meal, as in the buildout, comes next.  But the reality is we may not want to sit down for this dinner, because one of the best kept – and dirtiest – secrets about 5G is the energy consumption required to support the network.

“A lurking threat behind the promise of 5G delivering up to 1,000 times as much data as today’s networks is that 5G could also consume up to 1,000 times as much energy,” Dexter Johnson recently wrote for the IEEE Spectrum.

The infrastructure required to support 5G is going to be massive – beyond what most people can comprehend, including industry specialists.

Unlike the current 4G networks which rely on signals that transmit for miles by large cell towers, 5G will need small cell sites every few hundred feet to broadcast its short-range signals.

For some perspective, your typical wireless provider – like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint – have about 70,000 macro cell towers spread across the US.  That’s a huge number, but in return, you get near nationwide coverage.

For a fully built-out 5G network in Dallas, for example, the city will need a whopping 10,000 small cell sites.  That’s right, 10,000 antennas in just one city; keep in mind there are over 19,000 cities in the US.


But it turns out predicting the amount of energy required to power a 5G network is a hard thing to do.

As you deploy more small cells on top of the existing cellular infrastructure, the total energy consumption of the network will grow.  Even though energy consumption of a small cell is lower than a conventional macro cell – which will eventually be phased out – you need many more small cells to provide full coverage.

Exactly how many?  It’s still not clear, so making net 5G energy consumption predictions remains a challenge at this point.

That said, there aren’t a lot of reasons to be optimistic, according to Vetiv and technology analyst firm 451 Research, who recently surveyed over 100 global telecom operators.  More than 90 percent of respondents believe 5G will result in higher energy costs.

This result was also consistent with Vertiv’s internal analysis, which found that 5G could increase total network energy consumption by 150-170 percent by 2026.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  Some experts, like Emil Björnso, associate professor at Linkoping University, believe that power consumption should come down on 5G infrastructure over time.

“Just as computer processors become vastly more efficient over time, the analog and digital circuits that are used in base stations will become more efficient,” he recently told the IEEE Spectrum.  “The first generation of 5G hardware will be all about delivering all the new features to the market, but then there will be time to refine the hardware,” he continued.

Bottom line, it’s hard to know who to believe at this point, but let’s be real: this wouldn’t be the first time engineers built a solution to solve one set of problems, only to cause another set of problems.

Mining bitcoin today, for example, consumes more electricity than is generated by all of the world’s solar panels combined.  In other words, as David Wallace-Wells wrote in The Uninhabitable Earth, “In just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind the ‘fiat currencies’, a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovations.”

So yes, the 5G table is set, and improvements in speed, coverage, and reliability sound great, in principle.

But if these advances lead to higher energy consumption at precisely the moment in time when the world needs to cut and clean its energy consumption, then maybe this meal isn’t worth sitting for.


Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA, a tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Automated Vehicles.  GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground .

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

2019 Already a Big Year for “Smart City” Development

Smart cities and all their fancy gadgets – like autonomous vehicles –  won’t magically appear. Cities have to plan for them, infrastructure must be built to support them, and regulations surrounding their operations must be set.

In this regard, if 2018 was the year of the smart city skeptic, as CityLab wrote in December, then 2019 may well be the year of a smart city revival.

For starters, there has been an uptick in smart city strategic planning, according to Roland Berger’s second smart city index, released in early March.

Despite “smart cities” being an agenda item in city halls for many years, the reality is that most cities haven’t been taking a strategic approach to their “smart” status.

This trend appears to be shifting, however. The number of cities with a smart city strategy has almost doubled in the past two years, rising from 87 to 153.

While that is a considerable jump, Roland Berger, a global consulting firm, warns that good strategy is only the first step; implementation is what really counts.

Seen that way, there is still plenty of room for improvement, as 90 percent of those cities surveyed still don’t have an integrated plan with a single entity in charge of coordinating work, and clear responsibilities for the different groups involved.

Cities that do have a central decision-making body, like Vienna with its Smart City Agency or London with its Chief Digital Officer, perform well on implementation and lead the rankings as a result.

Planning aside, 2019 is also turning out to be a pivotal year for the rollout of 5G technology—considered to be the connective tissue for the internet of things, smart cities, and even autonomous vehicles.

Unlike the current 4G networks, which rely on signals that transmit for miles by large cell towers, 5G will need small cell sites every few hundred feet to broadcast its short-range signals.

And if you’ve been paying attention to the headlines, the U.S. and China are locked in a heated battle over who will get the chance to build this next generation of telecommunication infrastructure, as all the major contracts to build out 5G networks across Europe and the U.S. will be signed in the next 6-18 months, according New York Times reporting.

Both superpowers realize that whoever controls these 5G networks has the advantage—in times of war and peace. After all, the 5G system is a physical network of switches and routers, and what is good for consumers is also good for intelligence services and cyberattackers.

To curtail Chinese companies from winning these buildout contracts, the Trump administration has pushed for a ban on Huawei technology in UK, Australia, Poland, the European Union, the Philippines, and a slew of other countries.

U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell sent a letter to the German government in early March, for instance, threatening to curtail German access to U.S. intelligence if Berlin decides to issue contracts to Huawei, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

While U.S. efforts to ban Huawei 5G technology overseas have stumbled, the US along with Australia, Japan, and Taiwan have all decided to ban and phase out the company’s products.

The Trump administration is doubling down on the Huawei ban by also promoting elements of a leaked memo from the National Security Council to the White House on his 2020 campaign trail, which called for an unprecedented federal takeover of a portion of the nation’s mobile network to pay for and build a nationalized 5G network.

Key to Trump’s domestic strategy is a set of new federal regulations aimed at streamlining 5G infrastructure installation by limiting the authority of US cities.

The FCC in September 2018 passed a controversial set of rules—much of which went into effect on January 15—which limits municipal authorities to charging $270 per cell site per year and also imposes a “shot clock” limiting how long authorities can take to review installation requests.

The FCC argues that the new rules will free up $2 billion in capital for wireless providers to use in underserved areas like rural communities.

The new rules drew immediate protest from cities and counties around the country, and by October over 20 local governments took legal action and filed three separate suits. Each case makes the same basic argument against the FCC, claiming the federal government has overstepped its bounds and undercut local control of infrastructure issues.

Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler has called the FCC order a “land grab against local infrastructure.”

Today, more than 80 cities and counties have filed lawsuits against the FCC, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco is expected to render a decision in the lead case in April.

So to all the smart city skeptics out there, 2019, while it doesn’t scream smart city revolution, is already showing signs of significant smart city evolution.

Not only are cities cranking on their “smart” plans, but the US-China 5G war is heating up and U.S cities are in the throes of challenging – and by default shaping – the next generation of telecom rules that may, or not, accelerate the rapid deployment of key smart city technologies and services.

Oh yeah, and it’s only April.


Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA, a tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Automated Vehicles.  GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground .

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Singapore sets standards for Autonomous Vehicles

Singapore has released a set of national standards to guide the safe development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

The standards, known as Technical Reference 68 (TR 68), were developed under the purview of the Singapore Standards Council (SSC).  Four working groups were formed comprising representatives from the AV industry, research institutions, universities and government agencies to cover four key areas: vehicle behavior, vehicle functional safety, cybersecurity, and data formats.

These efforts were also supported by Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA), according to a joint press release.

TR 68 relates to the safe deployment of Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) Level 4 and 5 vehicles.  At these levels, the vehicle is fully autonomous in limited and all driving scenarios, respectively.

“In addition to safety, TR 68 provides a strong foundation that will ensure interoperability of data and cybersecurity that are necessary for the deployment of AVs in an urban environment. The TR 68 will also help to build up the AV ecosystem including startups and SMEs as well as testing, inspection and certification service providers,” said Choy Sauw Kook, director-general at Enterprise Singapore.

Responding to queries from Channel News Asia, the group said that TR 68 could be the first such national standard of its kind in the world.

“Currently, there are related ISO standards and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe regulations on specific topics concerning automated vehicles such as safety, cybersecurity, and messaging formats,” they said.

“Based on industry feedback, this could be the first such national standard in the world,”  the group continued.

Mr. Doug Parker, chief operating officer of Aptiv Autonomous Mobility, said the company is happy to have contributed to the standards as “it will facilitate the commercialization of autonomous vehicles” in Singapore.

Aptiv, a Delphi spin-off, bought US autonomous driving start-up nuTonomy in 2017, which has an office in Singapore.

As a provisional standard, TR 68 will continue to undergo refinement as AV technology matures, with feedback from the industry. The feedback gathered will be used to review TR 68 as it is eventually expanded to cover other aspects of AV development and deployment.

TR 68 documentation can be purchased from the Singapore Standards eShop.


Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA, a senior tech and policy advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Automated Vehicles.  GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground .

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Autonomous Vehicles: Planners Aren’t Planning, Just Reacting

When it comes to planning for transformative technologies like autonomous vehicles, urban planners – whose job it is to project and prioritize transportation investments – have fallen behind and the consequences could be severe.

Only one quarter of 38 cities surveyed by a recent Bloomberg study prioritized AV planning in the last year, and fewer than one in ten cities have been working on AVs for more than three years.

These results come on the heels of a National League of Cities report, which conducted a content analysis of city and regional transportation planning documents from the 50 most populous cities, as well as the largest cities in every state – a total of 68 communities.

Only six percent of transportation plans, at that time, even considered the potential effects of driverless technology, and only three percent of plans took into account private transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber or Lyft, even though TNC’s operate in 60 of the 68 markets.

“We have discovered a widening gap between innovation in the private sector, the expressed preferences of citizens, and the visions of city planners regarding transportation investment,” the NLC concluded.

Whether you live in a city or not, these findings should be cause for concern because experts believe connected and automated vehicles could be the key to solving some of our most pressing urban and regional problems.

Take the environment, for instance:  Transportation has surpassed all other sectors as the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emission, and 60 percent of all transportation spawned emissions come from light-duty vehicles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But there is hope.  By 2050, connected and autonomous vehicles could lead to a 44 percent reduction in fuel consumption, according to a recent Energy Information Agency report.  And 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.

AV tech could also save lives – lots of them.  Car accidents killed 37,461 people in 2016, up 5.6% from 2015, according to the latest data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  That’s the equivalent of one 747 plane crashing every two weeks.

Even the intermediate steps of introducing level one and two advanced driver assist systems, however, is paying off.  Vehicles with automatic emergency braking, for example, see a 40% reduction in rear-end collisions, which is the number one traffic incident in the US.

But urban planners need to be mindful of the darker side of autonomous vehicles as well.

As for congestion, “autonomous vehicles will increase – not decrease – traffic in downtown areas,” according to a recent joint World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group report.  While AVs will reduce the number of cars and overall travel time around cities as a whole, the study discovered the effect is not evenly distributed.  Concentrated downtown areas will potentially see an uptick in congestion.

And if cars get so smart they stop running red lights, speeding, or parking illegally, city officials expect a significant reduction in their city budgets, according to Governing, which conducted the first national analysis of how city revenues might be affected by AVs.

Parking fees are a critical funding source for the Austin Transportation Department, for example, accounting for nearly a quarter of its total budget.  Austin’s transportation director, Robert Spillar was hit by a realization last year.  “Half my revenue for transportation capacity and operations improvements is based on a parking model that may be obsolete in a dozen years,” he told Governing.

Bottom line,  it’s easy to get distracted by the technology –  after all, AVs are the bright new shiny object in the room.  But, we have to remember that it’s not about the technology;  it’s about solving problems.

Engineers build tools to solve problems – that is their contribution to society.  The role of the urban planner, on the other hand, is to find innovative ways to prescribe those tools so that, indeed, problems get solved.

So, planners; start planning.   Harness the good that AV tech has to offer, and mitigate the bad.

Otherwise, you will just be reacting.


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.

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.