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Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is going big with a bold blockchain strategy.

Announced today at Consensus 2017, TRI is revealing a series of notable partnerships and publishing an expansive overview for its vision for how blockchain tech could move the automotive giant into the future. Already, TRI is working with MIT Media Lab to explore how blockchain could impact the exchange of automobile data and even power a future generation of autonomous vehicles.

TRI's startup partners include BigchainDB, Oaken Innovations, Commuterz and Gem, each of which is working with the Toyota Motor North America subsidiary to explore a different potential use case for the emerging technology.

Why it matters: While startups have been working on Internet of Things (IoT) applications, with its connection to Toyota Motors, TRI is emerging as a potentially significant backer.

Further, given the reach of its brand, TRI could be the right champion to form a consortium for the industry. Already, similar efforts have emerged in the IoT and insurance sectors, where dozens of incumbents have committed to invest in furthering tech R&D.

The announcement also does much to position blockchain as a potential driver of the larger movement to autonomous vehicles – giving clout to the theory that gas-powered vehicles could come to function like wallets on a blockchain, capable of receiving and carrying out complex instructions.

Neha Narula, director of Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, said in a statement:

"Our hope is that other industry stakeholders will join this effort to bring safe and reliable autonomous vehicles one step closer to reality."

The strategy: Of equal interest is the specificity of the strategy as outlined by TRI – the company said it believes blockchain could come to impact three areas – data sharing, ride-sharing transactions and user-based insurance.

Further, it provided detail about its goals in each area and the partnerships that are helping it enhance its ideas.

– Data sharing: As put forward by Ballinger, blockchain could come to serve as the basis for new way to transact data – a problem he identified as essential for automation in the auto industry.

"Blockchains and distributed ledgers may enable pooling data from vehicle owners, fleet managers, and manufacturers to shorten the time for reaching this goal, thereby bringing forward the safety, efficiency and convenience benefits of autonomous driving technology," said Ballinger.

In this way, TRI positioned the tech as one that would connect the varied onboard sensors used today by vehicles, while making true ownership by consumers possible. Partner BigchainDB is now building a data exchange for driver data sharing as part of its work with TRI.

– Car sharing: Also envisioned is how blockchain could make cars more monetizable. TRI projects that its use could help its vehicles provide more value to owners, by enabling seats, trunk space and other unused, but potentially valuable, resources be monetized.

"The blockchain can store data about the vehicle’s usage and information about vehicle owners, drivers and passengers," the company said.

Here, TRI is working with Oaken Innovations – a finalist in CoinDesk's Consensus 2017 startup competition – and Israel-based Commuterz to deliver a peer-to-peer application for car sharing that could one day enable this possibility.

– Usage-based insurance: Last, but not least, TRI is envisioning how blockchain could help users save money on insurance rates, working with startup Gem on this specific area of research.

"By allowing the vehicle’s sensors to collect driving data and store it in a blockchain, vehicle owners may be eligible to further lower their insurance costs by giving their insurance companies increased transparency to reduce fraud plus granting them access to driving data to measure safe driving habits," the company wrote.

The idea fits within the broader narrative of opportunities for blockchain in the insurance sector.

For more on this use case and its potential, download and read CoinDesk Research's 40-page report here.

Image by Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk

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InsuranceToyotaConsensus 2017Automotive Industry

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