MOBI launches to avoid automotive blockchain Babel

Four major automakers and a host of suppliers have founded the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative (MOBI), to try and develop a standardized way to enable payments and data sharing between vehicles. Not looking to create a new blockchain system itself, MOBI aims to link the different approaches taken by automakers as they explore the potential of blockchain technologies in vehicle ecosystems.

The automakers involved are BMW, Ford, GM, and Renault-Nissan, flanked by major auto suppliers Bosch and ZF. On the technology vendor front, Accenture and IBM have thrown their hats in, and in the blockchain world, the IOTA and Hyperledger Foundations bring a lot of players to the table, flanked by Chronicled, Consensys, and Xain. It’s an influential group, and one that claims to represent 70% of global car production.

MOBI CEO Chris Ballinger explained that “you really have to have common standards and ways for cars to communicate, to identify themselves and make payments. But if each auto company is trying to develop its own car wallets or its own way of paying tolls, or providing a ride-sharing service, it just doesn’t work – it’s the Tower of Babel.”

It’s important to stress that the automakers are usually very isolationist, when it comes to joint-development. They are scared of a standard approach killing off their ability to differentiate their products in a market, and so prefer to develop their own internal way of doing things. This mindset is especially true in new technologies, and it is why there aren’t industry standards for things like cybersecurity approaches.

Over time, such standards might emerge, but MOBI is hoping to leverage that 70% of global production it claims to represent, in order to focus the industry around a standard approach. Notably, this open source approach should still let the automakers build their own blockchain (or non-blockchain) systems, but will define how these separate islands go about talking to each other.

However, there are a few notable absences from the list of founders, including Ballinger’s old employer Toyota – for which Ballinger headed up its Research Institute (TRI). While there, Ballinger told CoinDesk that he had realized the need for a consortium like MOBI, after conducting several blockchain PoCs with startups. While at Toyota, Ballinger founded the Blockchain Mobility Consortium, which it seems has now evolved into the separate MOBI. Weirdly, Toyota is not onboard with the new group.

Going forward, MOBI is going to establish a ‘minimum viable ecosystem’ that would support a network, using dedicated project teams to focus on different areas. These include identity, data tracking, ride-sharing, commerce, and data markets.

MOBI looks like the largest concerted effort in the automotive industry, towards using blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) as the basis for future opportunities. MOBI members IBM and ZF have previously partnered with the UBS bank to build a PoC payment system, which used an eWallet per vehicle to facilitate transactions between cars and infrastructure.

Elsewhere, in more interesting tests and deployments, another MOBI member, Xain, partnered with Porsche, to provide the update and management backbone for machine-learning systems in Porsche’s vehicles. Riot covered this in our recent ‘Is Blockchain Right for your Business’ report, but the gist of the system is a mechanism to share the things that distributed machines learn with other machines in their networks.

Xain’s current focus is on how to best share what self-driving cars learn from driving and encountering things. Put simply, the DLT angle is used to avoid having to send all of the associated data, instead only having to send the changes to the underlying algorithms and software. It uses a software client light enough to be run on the ECUs in the cars, meaning it doesn’t add much at all to the cost of each vehicle.

In this instance, a blockchain technology is solving the problem of expensive data backhaul of video files and LiDAR scans, which could get prohibitive if carried out over a metered LTE network. A lot of attention has been paid to the security of the system, and in an age of uncertainty about who owns which particular data, Xain believes it also solves that problem.

Another MOBI founder has already examined another use for blockchain in the automotive sector. Groupe Renault is exploring how to store a car’s maintenance logbook and service history on a public ledger, as a way to boost third-party information and trust for particular vehicles.

In this system, a service center repairman should be able to look up all the jobs done to a car throughout its life, so that they could better understand a current problem. If the logging system was used correctly, they would be able to see exactly when and where a task was carried out, and in combination with the car’s on-board telemetry, this could result in a much better quality of work and outcome.

It’s a two-way street too, as the automaker would be able to see how its cars are used out in the wild, simply by paying attention to the public ledger. In the old paper-based system, it had no such recourse. Riot has recently covered Gluon, a company looking to use a similar system to facilitate a third-party services marketplace, where engine telematics would provide the basis for service centers to bid on jobs.

The full list of members is: Accenture, Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Services USA, Beyond Protocol, BigChainDB, BMW, Bosch, Chronicled, Consensys, ContextLabs, Crypto Valley Association, Dashride, Deon Digital AG, Digital Twin Labs, Dovu, Fetch, Foam, General Motors, Hyperledger, IBM, IOTA Foundation, Luxoft, MotionWerk, NuCypher, Oaken Innovation, Ocean Protocol, Outlier Ventures, Groupe Renault, Ride Austin, ShareRing, Shift, Spherical Analytics, Spherity, Trusted Internet of Things Alliance, VeChain, Xain, and ZF Friedrichshafen AG.