Yikes! One of the problems blockchain startups say their technology can solve has actually happened.
An odd problem occurred at the Geneva Motor Convention in… yes, Geneva, when a load of the vehicles present at the convention started to display their location as Buckingham, England, in the year 2036. That’s a long way from Geneva, or the present day.
According to news site Jalopnik, the incident was caused by a spoofer—someone manipulating the cars’ GPS signals. In this particular case, the spoofer is unknown: Jalopnik speculates that it could be a publicity stunt by spoofing technology firm Racelogic, which shares the same Buckingham address as the GPS location. But the range of Racelogic’s technology is limited to around 30 metres, and spoofing is illegal.
Whatever the cause, the mishap hints at the sort of bizarre techno-dystopian future that is surely in store for us if we let automated cars run on GPS technology, the standard developed and owned by the US military. GPS signals are easy to fabricate, and GPS-enabled devices—i.e. a phone or a car—can’t tell the difference between a real signal and a false one.
So fast forward to the future and imagine that the cars in Geneva were self-driving. Changing the GPS location would cause them to drive as though they were in Buckingham, rather than Geneva. Try and walk around Brooklyn with a map of Manhattan. It won’t go well. That this actually occurred in Geneva—across the entire convention—is a sign, perhaps, that GPS is no longer fit for purpose.
But not to worry, folks. This is one problem blockchain actually seems marginally well-equipped to address. Here are two startups, FOAM and XYO, who have developed technology specifically designed to fix this very weird, fringe problem.
FOAM is a New York-based startup that produces a GPS-independent map of a given area. Low-wave radio operators beam signals to each other to establish their relative location, then transmit this data to the Ethereum blockchain. The result is a map that no lone spoofer can game—to do so would require massive computational resources, enough to override each radio in the network.
Now, FOAM is not a replacement for GPS—rather, the verification on the ground allows people to authenticate the signals beamed down from the satellites above. A spoofer cannot bamboozle, say, a Geneva Motors racer with a fake signal, if that driver is hooked into a second, terrestrial network.
Amazingly, this is literally one of the use cases FOAM described to us when we interviewed them last year.
XYO’s solution is more complex. The San Diego-based startup produces portable nodules—”sentinels”—that communicate with one another. You might put one in a vehicle, or by a landmark. The result is an endless chatter between thousands of devices that can be used to determine not the absolute coordinates of a place, but its relative coordinates — its proximity to another device.
Imagine two Geneva racers driving side by side, each with a sentinel inside. It won’t matter if their GPS devices show them as being in Buckingham—if their proximity to the road, the crowds, the barriers and one another can be proven on relative grounds, they won’t need the satellites above. But in case they do, XYO says it has its own satellite.
Not everyone is convinced. Lovable blockchain skeptic David Gerard thinks FOAM and XYO are bogus, pointing out that OpenStreetMap (OSM)—a crowdsourced, Microsoft-sponsored project—already exists and is better. It’s “the Wikipedia of maps,” he says. “It's done by volunteers on the same basis, and it's as consistently excellent. The coordination problem would not be fixed better by adding altcoin tokenomics.”
Yet FOAM, which happily uses much of OSM’s data, purports to improve upon its shortcomings by offering a financial incentive to its contributors. FOAM radio operators stake cryptocurrency on the accuracy of their broadcasts, which—supposedly—provides an incentive for accuracy that the OSM developers don’t have.
Gerard still thinks this is nonsense. “Their only new thing is paying the contributors penny shavings on a blockchain.”
Yet there is some reason to believe FOAM’s financial model makes sense. In the past, there have been examples of OSM’s volunteer-based model succumbing to trolls, including an incident where a volunteer changed the name of New York City to “Jewtropolis.”
We don’t know whether FOAM has put its superior security claims to the test, because its spokesperson didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Perhaps he’s lost.