Software: The key for progression in the e-mobility sector

By Freddie Eastham
Freddie Eastham explains why software, not hardware, will be the biggest enabler for progression in the e-mobility sector

The electrification of consumer transportation is underway. Tesla has been the standout star in the EV market, but this year alone has seen the rise of several high-profile EV companies, such as Lucid, Rivian and Nio. This revolution also promotes e-bikes and e-scooters, as popular brands like Xiaomi and Segway mass manufacture consumer-accessible e-mobility devices. Besides range and battery charge time, however, there’s little room for innovation in e-mobility hardware. Read on to learn why the future of progression in the e-mobility sector will be driven by innovation in software.

 

Changing the way we use devices

Owning devices is becoming increasingly rarer with the rise of the rental economy. Why own a car in a densely-packed city if you can just call an Uber? In the same sense, owning a traditional bike or scooter is a hassle, particularly for those living in cities and urban environments. Taking a bike or scooter to work involves having to find someplace to store it when you’re not using it and dealing with theft, repairs and other ownership problems.

In addition to helping provide motorised power, e-scooters and e-bikes can also function as the Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This opens up a world of potential for software innovation in the e-mobility sector, as these devices can be interacted with over the internet and controlled through any number of devices, from mobiles and tablets to laptops and desktops. Using your phone to unlock a bike at a bike station for a quick journey has become commonplace in many cities around the globe.

 

What’s the problem?

Though e-bike and e-scooter rental apps are well-established, they suffer from systemic issues. Bike security is paramount: how do companies prevent these relatively expensive bikes from being vandalised or stolen? There must be adequate tracking and ample places for consumers to deposit their bikes once they finish using them. This relies on knowing where your bikes are at all times, which carries on to another issue.

IoT connected devices typically rely on cloud-based infrastructure for data storage and processing. The reasons for this are primarily obvious: they require high server availability with a global reach so that users are never far from a server wherever they are. These requirements mean that only a handful of major companies can offer these services, with AWS being the market leader.

However, this centralisation has led to several issues noticed by app developers and the wider online community. When AWS goes down, it impacts many significant customers. A recent outage from 22nd December affected app-based services, including Coinbase, Hinge, Epic Games Store, and Slack, to name a few. That outage made for the third AWS outage in December alone. How can the e-mobility sector be expected to function on flaky infrastructure? If a user wishes to rent or give back an e-bike or e-scooter, but they’re blocked from doing so due to being unable to communicate with a server, what are they supposed to do? The solution lies not in improved hardware or infrastructure but software.

 

Innovations in distributed computing

In recent years, one of the most exciting and innovative trends from the IT sector is blockchain technology and smart contracts. For many years, blockchain has been synonymous with Bitcoin, but they are two different concepts, and it is essential to distinguish between the two. Bitcoin, as most people know it, is a digital asset. When people send and receive Bitcoin, those transactions are recorded on a distributed, immutable ledger known as the blockchain. The blockchain functions as a spread, immutable database containing a record of every transaction ever made on the network.

The blockchain is still relatively nascent tech, but there is a huge potential upside as it solves many problems associated with overreliance on centralised services like AWS. The blockchain is not hosted on any particular server but rather on thousands of nodes spread around the globe. It is a distributed, permissionless system, which means that anybody globally may run a node. They do not require permission or approval from anyone to do so.

This provides massively improved resilience over even the best data centre fallback plans. Due to the distributed nature of nodes, it does not matter if 1, 10, or even 100 nodes go down at any one time. The blockchain that holds every recorded transaction is supported by every other node on the network, essentially the network equivalent of a Roman fasces: any individual node may break, but the network still endures.

 

E-mobility smart contracts

The other major innovation in blockchain technology is smart contracts. These are programmable contracts that live on the blockchain and respond to various inputs or triggers. These may be initiated by an end-user or conditionally triggered entirely programmatically. Bitcoin does not support smart contracts, but many modern blockchains such as Ethereum do.

The combination of blockchain and smart contracts offers the most exciting areas of future innovation in the e-mobility sector. Smart contracts are essentially scripts that live on the blockchain. For example, a smart contract may live on the blockchain and be able to accept payments from end-users to unlock e-bikes and e-scooters from anywhere in the world at any time.

Because the smart contract lives on the blockchain, it can be accessed by anyone from anywhere and at any time. You don’t need to worry about whether the server you are using is slow, unavailable, or down for maintenance. You already benefit from the pre-existing global network of nodes, and you don’t have to pay for server upkeep or network engineers. Smart contracts are immutable, and blockchains are permissionless systems, meaning your smart contract will always exist on the blockchain. It cannot be removed by anyone (though there are ways to modify and update existing smart contracts, so you can still fix bugs and add new features!)

It’s crucial for many companies that software development in renewable energy should be environmentally-friendly. One of the most prominent criticisms of Bitcoin and Ethereum is that they are energy-intensive. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss why it’s important to note that Bitcoin and Ethereum are the very early forerunners in the industry and more modern blockchains are much less energy-intensive.

 

The future of software in the e-mobility sector

The e-mobility sector is all about going anywhere at any time. E-bikes and e-scooters help us to reach our destination faster. In many ways, blockchain technology mirrors this by allowing anyone accesses to it from anywhere at any time — no more worrying about server outages or bikes getting lost or stolen while servers are unreachable. The most exciting innovations in the future of the e-mobility sector will undoubtedly come from software and not hardware solutions.

 

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