• Blockchain has evolved into a transactional computing paradigm ideally suited to handle many aspects of highway operations.
  • Adminstrators in the future could leverage blockchain to collect fees and offer financial rewards.

Technology can sometimes evolve in steep iterations. The first wireless phones looked nothing like smartphones today and the first cars were naturally modelled on horse buggies. We often need one version of a thing to imagine and create its next incarnation. Blockchain technology is no exception. Today, we see innovative use cases, often enabled by wireless capabilities, that allow blockchain deployments to create entirely new value streams. One such example are highways and the way in which they can be managed in the future.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about blockchain governance in global supply chains?

The World Economic Forum has produced a toolkit on responsible deployment of blockchain in global supply chains. The first-of-its kind Blockchain Deployment Toolkit provides insights from more than 100 experts and provides key guidelines on topics such as risk, consortia formations, security and ecosystem collaboration.

The toolkit is delivered through the Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), that shapes the development and deployment for new technologies and provides a space for global cooperation to create understanding and policies that accelerate these technologies’ positive impact for the individual and the society. The acceleration of the post COVID-19 economic rebound through 4IR-technologies such as blockchain is an important task for the 4IR-centre today.

The World Economic Forum launched the Redesigning Trust: Blockchain Deployment Toolkit 28 April, 2020.
The World Economic Forum launched the Redesigning Trust: Blockchain Deployment Toolkit 28 April, 2020.
Image: World Economic Forum

When we envision a highway in the year 2035, we see a state-of-the-art road that is predominantly used by electric and autonomous vehicles. Traffic flows easily for the most part and improved vehicle safety limits the potential for accidents due to advanced vehicle control features. Mechanical failures are rare occurrences due to preventative maintenance and continuous monitoring. When vehicles break down, they are quickly moved aside, a nearby local mechanic is summoned, and a maintenance drone flies the requisite tools, spare parts and instructions for repair to the site.

Gas stations, too, look different in that they cater mainly to electric charging needs. The underlying information systems that control traffic flow and enable vehicle orchestration are intelligent, situation-aware, decentralized and always connected. Communication has progressively evolved from 5G technologies to offer always-on, anywhere connectivity. People take networks so much for granted that they have largely forgotten the underlying technologies exist at all.

In this future, the ability to connect to vehicles at all times provides highway administrators with an unprecedented set of capabilities and effectively allows for collaborative applications far beyond our current reach. An interesting aspect is that toll roads do not need RFID hardware. Every mile of road can be designated as a virtual toll road when vehicles communicate on 5G highway networks because they are simply always-on. Payments can be enforced selectively, for example, for commercial vehicles but not private ones. There are a wide variety of use case scenarios ranging from pay-for-speed and pay-by-time to payments for the monitoring of vehicle conditions or the implementation of financial rewards for certain behaviors. The underlying technology enabling secure data storage and sharing, a high degree of privacy and the automation of commercial transactions may well turn out to be blockchain.

Blockchain has long matured from a ledger for cryptocurrencies into a transactional, trustless computing paradigm and is ideally suited to handle many aspects of highway operations. The business case rests on reductions in congestion, accidents and emissions as well as increases in road and cost efficiency. Partial or full autonomy, especially in commercial vehicles, may very well lead to a whole new array of requirements as well. For example, highway blockchains may need to develop the ability to directly affect the operation of assets under certain circumstances. Viable solutions require secure certificate management, the integration of freight and commercial data, dynamic roadway information and enable new business models for highway costing. For many of these components available today, however, it is their combination on a unified blockchain infrastructure that truly creates value.

To process highway payments, on-chain vehicle owners and operators need to connect to available services, some of which may be pre-selected while others may be determined during the operation of a vehicle. Highway blockchains can monitor and charge for different speeds, types of freight, vehicle weights, vehicle classes, various times, or for specific services such as electric charging or repairs. Operators can be made aware of new travel options in near real-time to take advantage of them.

"In the future, highway blockchains will be ready to orchestrate traffic flows, ensure higher safety and increase road efficiency for everyone."

—Hanns-Christian L. Hanebeck, Founder & CEO, Truckl

Equally interesting, highway administrators have the ability to leverage a blockchain solution to not just collect fees but offer financial rewards as well. For example, in congested areas it may be desirable to steer following traffic around an obstacle. The highway blockchain might contact all vehicles that are approaching a congested area but that are still between 15 and five miles away. By offering a payment for taking a detour, traffic jams are less likely to worsen, and vehicle operators may appreciate the opportunity to avoid it while they are rewarded at the same time. By gaining the ability to influence behavior through financial fees and rewards, highway administrators act similarly to Central Banks in some ways. They use income from specific road usage scenarios to spend it on control of congestion and traffic in others. The resulting revenues can be treated as a zero-sum game, or they can be used to improve infrastructure and safety.

All of the capabilities we discuss require a high degree of situational intelligence. Without knowledge of the current state of a roadway, the ability to affect behavior has little or no value. A multitude of sensory inputs and external data sources, called oracles in blockchain applications, need to be integrated. Highway blockchains can weight factors ranging from road and weather conditions or wind speeds to local sporting and cultural events to predict how traffic will flow on a given highway beforehand. They can leverage real-time feeds from roadway and vehicle sensors along with data that is available in the cloud to further improve and optimize these predictive capabilities over time.

A second interesting use case is the ability to affect the operation of an asset directly. This is not to say that highway administrators will take over for us. However, especially when considering the emergence of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, there may well be a need for capabilities that allow for the coordination of their operations. This reaches beyond the regulation of peloton speeds to potentially affect operating conditions such as temperatures on a refrigerated trailer or the identification of mechanical problems such as the loss of tire pressure early on for example. Effectively, highway blockchains have the potential to eventually replace traditional track and trace systems to offer near real-time visibility throughout the journey of a vehicle and to affect its operation as conditions change. This could be an additional revenue stream for highway administrators, especially when they have access to most of the data through virtual tolling capabilities.

The use cases for highway blockchains discussed in this piece were developed using the World Economic Forum Decision-Making Framework for Blockchain in Supply Chain. The WEF framework, part of the recently released Blockchain Deployment Toolkit, provides a single source of knowledge in regard to all relevant aspects of blockchain deployment ranging from the choice of blockchain type to considerations of governance and cybersecurity. As such, the framework is the only tool available today that offers a holistic view for decision-makers.

Some of the aspects we describe may seem far-fetched and no one really knows what our future holds. However, we should keep in mind that the designers of motorized horse buggies in the late nineteenth century could have hardly envisioned a Formula 1 race or a Tesla Cybertruck. Are we eventually going to see drones that regulate traffic or move warning signage into and out of congested areas, or highway systems intelligent enough to recognize the loss of tire pressure on a vehicle to automatically route it to a safe stop? We can't be sure. Whatever may happen, highway blockchains will be ready to orchestrate traffic flows, ensure higher safety and increase road efficiency for everyone.