FEATURE: Why blockchain is key to the future of smart mobility


Freddie Eastham, head of the Product team at software services company Easthouse, looks at the ways in which smart, on-demand mobility services will evolve with decreasing reliance on ‘traditional’ cloud-based digital infrastructure

In recent years, the rental economy has exploded from leasing cars to using Uber, Lyft, Bolt, or many others to get around. For some people, the appeal is obvious: why deal with buying a car, paying for MOTs and maintenance, petrol and road tax if you live in a city and can call an Uber at any time of day or night? Likewise, similar pains are associated with owning electric micromobility devices like e-bikes and e-scooters. If you take a bike or scooter to work, you have to find someplace to store it when you’re not using it, protect it from theft, pay for upkeep, and deal with other ownership problems.

Creating efficient, on-demand, smart-mobility networks requires accurate digitization of locations and direct connections to the broader Internet of Things (IoT). The potential for innovation here is vast, as these devices can now be interacted with programmatically. Developers can write apps that connect e-scooters and e-bikes to your smartphone and other servers. A simple example of this is using your phone to locate and unlock a rental bike at a bike station for a quick journey, something which has become commonplace in many cities around the globe.

Solving the problems of rentals

Bikes and scooter rental apps are not new, but they suffer from some well-known problems that can make them challenging to manage. For one, bike security and protection from vandalism is of utmost importance: how do companies protect these expensive bikes from theft or vandalism? Real-time tracking of bikes and adequate locations for depositing e-scooters and e-bikes when consumers are done with them helps reduce the rate of abandoned bikes and helps companies locate any bikes that go missing.

These IoT connected devices often rely on cloud-based infrastructure for data storage and processing due to them requiring high server availability with a global reach. This is essential to give users a smooth and fast user experience. Since users will be out and about when using these bikes, they will likely be on their phones using data, which has lower speeds than home connections.

Users won’t want to wait for a server response before ditching their bikes, so servers need to be close by to the user wherever they are to enable fast response times. These requirements mean that only a handful of major companies can offer these services, with AWS (Amazon Web Services) being the largest and most widely used.

However, this has led to a dependency on AWS, with many companies reliant on them for the uptime of their app. This means that it can impact millions of end-users when AWS goes down. A recent outage, on December 21, 2021, affected app-based services, including Coinbase, Hinge, Epic Games Store, and Slack, to name a few. These are large companies in their own rights, serving millions of users a day, and yet they were all at the mercy of the third AWS outage in December alone.

If a user wishes to rent or give back an e-bike or e-scooter, but AWS is down, so they cannot communicate with a server, what are they supposed to do? They cannot rent or give back the bike, and they’re not likely to wait around until the problems are fixed. More than this, it’s not likely they’ll know or care it’s the fault of AWS – they will blame the app for being unreliable.

The rise of distributed computing

One of the most interesting recent innovations in the IT sector is blockchain technology and smart contracts. Chances are you may know blockchain as synonymous with Bitcoin. However, it is worth distinguishing the two. Bitcoin is a digital asset, and the blockchain is the underlying ledger on which all transactions are recorded. Think of blockchain as a distributed, permissionless, and immutable database. These words are essential – anyone may run a node that hosts a copy of the blockchain, there are no licensing fees to pay, and attackers cannot modify data.

This provides massively improved resilience over even the best data center fallback plans. While AWS has 84 ‘availability zones’ unevenly distributed around the globe, Bitcoin has over 14,000 nodes across the world and counting. Each node contains a copy of the entire blockchain, which holds every recorded transaction. Thus, Bitcoin could suffer an outage of thousands of nodes and remain accessible. It is challenging for any centralised service to match this kind of resilience.

The key ingredient

Blockchain is useful, but the critical ingredient for the smart mobility sector is mixing it with smart contracts. These are programmable contracts that live on the blockchain and automatically respond to inputs or triggers. Anyone may interact with a smart contract at any time – think of it as an interactive script on the blockchain. Bitcoin specifically does not support smart contracts, but many modern blockchains such as Ethereum (which also uses nodes and distributed computing).

This combination offers a lot of potential for future innovation in the smart mobility sector. Once a smart contract is live on the blockchain, it can be accessed by anyone at any time – no need to pay for expensive infrastructure or maintenance. You don’t need to worry about whether the server you are using is slow, unavailable, or down for maintenance. Simply accept payments from end-users through a smart contract to unlock e-bikes and e-scooters from anywhere in the world at any time.

It’s crucial for many companies that software development in renewable energy should be environmentally-friendly. Bitcoin and Ethereum are the two forerunners of blockchain technology and smart contracts, but other modern blockchains are environmentally friendly and less energy-intensive.

The future of smart mobility software

The smart mobility sector is about giving people the ability to go wherever they want, whenever they want. E-bikes and e-scooters help us to reach our destination faster. You don’t want your users hamstrung by server outages or bikes going missing while servers are unreachable. The distributed, permissionless nature of blockchain means this isn’t a concern for companies taking advantage of smart contracts. This is a very new area with lots of exciting potentials – future innovation in the smart mobility sector will undoubtedly come from software and not hardware solutions.

Images: AdobeStock

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