Internet of Cars: A driver-side primer on IoT implementation

Billions of devices are currently connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), and researchers are predicting tremendous growth in the coming decade.

One of the most exciting, challenging and potentially lucrative areas of the IoT is the automotive sector. The car is a major component of most people’s daily lives, and a “smart” car could do a lot to save people time and money.

At the same time, the “Internet of Cars” carries with it dystopian visions of increased ad noise and security threats. It’s worth considering for a moment what these scenarios look like — good and bad — and how consumers can educate themselves to ensure that the cars of the future are driving in the right direction.

The car is a major component of most people’s daily lives, and a “smart” car could do a lot to save people time and money.

The promises and problems of connected cars

Imagine if your car was able to call your mechanic when the engine was showing signs of trouble. Imagine if the mechanic could read a data report from your engine and order the required parts ahead of time. Imagine if the data on those parts could be aggregated to warn of the need for any mass recalls? What if your car could communicate with other cars around it in a traffic jam, and the cars could all work together to space out and ease congestion?

What if your car could pay automatically at parking garages and drive-throughs? Anyone that owns a car is familiar with all these pain points, and the prospect of a new system that erases these spots of friction would be a welcome development.

But how can we ensure that all of this new data from our smart cars will be handled in a secure and private way? It seems likely, as car manufacturers work quickly to bring their products online, that tech giants will be the first partners to help implement the Internet of Cars. This might be cause for concern amongst consumers who are growing tired of their data being sold or hacked. The big tech companies aren’t inherently evil, but their basic business models are structured in such a way that consumer privacy and security are not the main priorities.

It’s not hard to imagine how the Internet of Cars could move in a much darker direction: Advertisements with real-time location data updating constantly on your windshield, personal data such as your driving habits stored on central servers, and a myriad of new vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit. How do we bring cars online so that friction in our lives is smoothed down without introducing a unique set of new problems?

Data security must be the foundation of the IoC

Of course Big Tech companies will be eager to offer connectivity for drivers, but it’s most likely going to come at the price of giving personal data over to Big Tech servers. This brings with it, as always, two major problems. The first is that centralized data represents a honeypot for hackers. No matter the strength of the security system, hackers realize that once they break through, they have access to the whole pot. The second problem is that the value of all that data is simply too lucrative for the owner to ignore. The data will always be sold, regardless of all the lip service promising to make it anonymous.

The IoT represents a new layer of IT integration in our lives; it will be at least as much of a game-changer as the internet was originally. Even with the advancement of the mobile internet brought about by smartphones, internet implementations have, until now, basically been carried out through clunky interfaces like screens, keyboards and mouses. The IoT is going to bring a new level of sophistication to how and where we interface online, but this also means a new level of intrusion into our physical reality. In the case of cars, we can be rightly wary that this new development might be problematic, but it doesn’t have to be.

Distributed ledger technology (DLT) represents a path forward for the Internet of Cars, because it builds data security and privacy into the foundations of any connected devices. Any model of DLT includes some basic concepts such that data is carried on a decentralized network of computers and servers. It also means that data is stored permanently, and that new entries of any data are subject to a mathematical verification. DLT is a fundamentally different way to handle massive amounts of data. DLTs have proven to be extremely resilient to attacks, and the data on these networks is nearly impossible to collect and sell.

Picking the right tool for the job

There are millions of internet-connected cars already on the road, albeit mostly with crude subscription services for music and weather apps. With further advances, connection will be much more encompassing, with the average connected car having up to 200 sensors installed, each recording a point of data, minute by minute. The numbers quickly become staggering, and in emergency situations, the need for data agility is apparent. Picture driving on a highway in medium traffic.

If someone’s tire blows out half a mile ahead, this information could be quickly conveyed to surrounding cars, warning of the potential for emergency braking. Any DLT solution would have to include a very nimble verification process for all these new packets of information to be brought into and carried by the network.

Additionally, because of the computational complexity involved, almost all DLTs today charge a fee for each new transaction brought into the network. In fact, the fee is an integral part of the structure of many of these computational models. This is obviously not going to be workable in a system like urban traffic that would be generating billions of “transactions” every day. The truth is that decentralized data networks were never designed to handle these kinds of massive use-case scenarios. Blockchain, for example, is very elegant at censorship-resistance in a network, and this has proven valuable in certain financial use cases.

But a DLT that expects a little money every time a car’s air conditioning reports its output is simply unusable for that application. Any DLT that’s going to give us a high level of security and real-time connectivity will also have to be feeless.

Security, speed and ease of adaptability through a no-fee structure are the three critical points for any network backing up the Internet of Cars. DLTs are clearly the most secure option, but they must also provide scalability and a feeless structure.

The example of being able to pay automatically for a parking garage visit might seem like a trite convenience. In actuality, if we can implement these types of small transactions properly from the beginning, then the hurdles we will jump in solving the complexity and volume of the car traffic data environment will go a long way to creating a safe, consumer-friendly Internet of Things in general.

When thinking about a completely connected physical environment, the alternatives to scalable, fee-less DLT are frankly scary.