FinTech Horizons

Karen Padley is News Editor at Fintech Horizons Media. She has been a business journalist for more than 30 years, and has written for Bloomberg, Reuters, Mergermarket, Investor's Business Daily and others.

Autonomous or “smart” cities, which use blockchain to improve operations, are probably still 8 to 10 years away, according to a panel at the Voice of Blockchain conference in Chicago last week.

“The technology is here today to do 95 percent of everything we’re thinking about. The processes that need to be in place are a long way off,” said Don DeLoach, co-chairman of the Midwest IoT Council.

Panelists noted the necessary information exists in “silos” held by various levels of government that will have to agree on any changes. Data and communications will need to be standardized, they said. And cities will have to figure out how they want to use the data.

“It’s hard for the public agencies to be able to manage the data to a level of quality and service,” said Monali Shah, director of intelligent transportation at HERE Technologies. “It also has to have the ability to scale in a way that would be meaningful for creating solutions.”

In addition, there’s the issue of trust.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of that,” said Hope McDonald, director at Bosch mLab. “You need a balance of credibility coming from big corporations that are taking on these technologies and doing these projects.”

DeLoach agreed. While some economists predict data is the new oil, he said he agrees more with a friend who quipped that “Trusted data is the new oxygen.”

Panelists cited several early projects around the country, including Chicago’s Array of Things and another run by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Jerry Quandt, executive director at the Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, said the state has a pilot program underway with a private agribusiness company, a shipping company, the Department of Transportation and the state police.

The first phase involves sharing data with a single entity, he said. The next phase will involve the application of distributed ledger technology.

“As you ask for things out of it over the course of our first two phases, we’re going to start developing the algorithms that define the valuation of the information that’s going in,” Quandt said. “This is a critical step as you talk about multiple disparate entities sharing data and then trying to provide valuation against multiple disparate entities.”

Shah noted that BMW, Daimler and Audi have started sharing vehicle sensing data related to road conditions, such as snow, ice, accidents, traffic congestion and the like.  No one company has enough scale on its own to use the data, she noted.

HERE, a digital mapping company owned by Bosch and the three carmakers, aggregates and anonymizes the data and turns it into information an individual driver can use. Cities also could use the data to improve traffic conditions, she said.  

Some panel members noted there could be a “fear factor” when governments and corporations work together.

“We have to get past that, make sure society is ready to accept it before cities are going to be able to use it on broader scale, to do something fully autonomous that the citizens actually trust.” McDonald said.

In the near future, panelists said, there will be pockets of cities using blockchain, with each focusing on the areas that are most important to it.

“Blockchain is thrown around like the Holy Grail because everybody’s excited and it’s the new silver bullet. It isn’t though,” DeLoach said. “This has to be thought through because it’s not ‘one size fits all.’”