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How will autonomous cars pay for things?

A new technology known as eWallet is designed to improve the driving experience today, and to enable the fully autonomous capabilities promised for the future. By Megan Lampinen

Driverless cars need to be able to carry out all the tasks currently handled by humans. That doesn’t just mean shifting gears, accelerating, braking, steering and observing the environment. It also means conducting the sort of financial transactions that are part and parcel of motoring—paying for tolls, parking, fuel, etc. Enter Car eWallet, a subsidiary of German technology pioneer ZF.

“While ZF has been busy developing the technology to enable autonomous driving, the idea behind eWallet is that it is not enough just to equip a vehicle with the ability to travel from point A to B,” said Thorsten Weber, Chief Executive of Car eWallet. “To make it truly autonomous, it must also have the ability to interact with its environment and with infrastructure.”

This gap is what eWallet has targeted. The aim is to create the largest open marketplace based on blockchain technology, with the ability to pay for anything that human drivers now pay for easily and safely. Two separate use cases are currently under development.

Long-term vs near-term approaches

The long-term business plan is designed for a future ecosystem dominated by fleets of shared, autonomous vehicles (AVs). After one of these AVs drops off a passenger, it may sense that it is low on fuel. It can then navigate to a fuelling station, request the right type of fuel, pay for it, and then return to its base. “There is nobody sitting inside the vehicle with a credit card,” clarified Weber. “We are giving the car machine-to-machine capability.”

As we have a digital business model, the speed we need to bring this into the market is much higher than that required for industrial products

However, full autonomy still remains in the testing phase for most applications. In the meantime, many of the same assumptions made for AVs can also be applied for fleets. “With fleets, the vehicle driver is not necessarily the owner,” said Weber. Fleets such as rental car companies or car-share operators could represent an early stage customer for eWallet.

“Fuelling and parking today is not really fun,” said Weber. “You have to get out of the car to fuel and then often you have to queue to pay at the cashier. It’s not a great experience. We want to provide deeper integration for a much better experience.”

The offering

Weber provided a demonstration of the eWallet in action at the ZF Global Technology Day near Dresden in July this year. The demo used a volunteer human driver and a regular production vehicle fitted with eWallet. When the driver pulled the vehicle up next to a fuelling point, the car could sense that it approached a ‘point of interest’ and the screen popped up with an offer to fuel. The driver simply clicked on ‘start process’ and eWallet began to communicate with the service provider. No special infrastructure needed to be installed at the fuelling station. The eWallet simply sends a signal to the service provider to ‘unlock pump’.

After fuelling, the user clicked ‘end process’ and the car communicated how many litres of fuel it received. The system matched that with the fuelling station information. After confirmation of payment the driver was good to go. The approach would be the same for an electric vehicle (EV) charging station.

It is not enough just to equip a vehicle with the ability to travel from A to B. To make it truly autonomous, it must also have the ability to interact with its environment and with infrastructure

Fleets generally want to connect to mobile services like parking, road tolls, fuelling or charging, and many of these providers do offer digital ways to do that. Some require the fleet operator or the vehicle owner to download an app, though the hassle is having to download a separate app for each and every service. Others may require users to carry a piece of hardware in the vehicle or display something in the car.

Weber’s team takes the connected experience to the next level, making it possible for fleets to gain access to numerous layers with one transaction to the Car eWallet. “We are a transaction layer,” he told M:bility. Based on blockchain technology from IBM, the eWallet platform makes it possible to synchronise the information from each participant in the network. Importantly, this is done so in a reliable way and leaves an unchangeable record. Users are only granted access to information they are cleared to see and use.

Well positioned

The eWallet technology began as an idea several years ago within the ZF IoT Lab, the supplier’s internal incubator. “This is the place where ZF breeds ideas that are not necessarily part of the core business,” explained Weber. After presenting the concept at the 2016 CES, a working prototype was unveiled at the International Automobilausstellung (IAA) the following year. Here, the public was shown use cases for parking, charging and toll payments. In 2018, the ZF board decided to make it a business, and it was spun it off as a separate entity in September that year.

We are not an automaker, fleet operator or service provider. We are ideally situated to be the kind of neutral player required to run this digital marketplace

“As we have a digital business model, the speed we need to bring this into the market is much higher than that required for industrial products,” said Weber. “This is an example of an industrial conglomerate operating at two speeds.” The eWallet team today consists of a mix of software engineers, traditional automotive experts, designers and business development professionals. All of their strengths will be needed as the company refines its go-to-market approach and scales.

“We are not an automaker, fleet operator or service provider,” the Chief Executive observed. “We are ideally situated to be the kind of neutral player required to run this digital marketplace. It is all about seamless service consumption.”

But one critical ingredient for success with a platform like this is growth. As the number of partners builds, so does the value of the platform. Providers like fuelling stations need to sign up to eWallet, which Weber believes represents an additional sales channel for them: “We are paid a specific amount per car by the fleets to access the network. The service providers pay a yearly fee to be a part of that.” Notably, service providers retain full control of their service offering, exactly as they do now; eWallet simply provides them with the platform to settle transactions from customers in a fully transparent, automated and fraud-proof manner.

To attract as many members as possible, the team wants to make it simple and straightforward for partners and fleets to connect. “An easy interface makes it easy to connect with the platform, which allows us to scale it,” Weber said. It also helps that eWallet is system agnostic. “Whatever system is used in the back end of the service provider or the fleet, we can connect,” he added.

One critical ingredient for success with a platform like this one is growth. As the number of partners grows, so does the value of the platform

It also works across all sorts of vehicles. “A single fleet may contain numerous cars across different brands and of widely different ages. We have different technology to integrate the system into the car or we can use a retrofit solution. We are independent of the user interface,” clarified Weber. “You do not need to download another app to your smartphone. We will integrate into whatever is present.”

eWallet recently signed up its first platform partner, the German fuelling station owner BayWa, following a successful smart fuelling pilot. Over the next few months, these capabilities will be rolled out across the entire BayWa station network.

Weber says they are currently in talks with other service providers and fleets at the moment.

This article appeared in the Q4 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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