Omnitracs emphasizes public blockchains ahead of BiTA symposium

 ( Photo: Shutterstock )
( Photo: Shutterstock )

A week before members of the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA) meet in Atlanta—the day before Transparency18, it should be noted—the telematics and SaaS firm Omnitracs wanted to underline the importance of public blockchains and open data standards. FreightWaves spoke to Brad Taylor, VP of Data and IoT Solutions at Omnitracs, by phone on Friday afternoon.

“Obviously we’re a participant in BiTA,” began Taylor, “and we feel like when we’re talking about that organization in general, the guiding concepts were that it’s a participatory effort with an industry focus and a mandate around common standards, which is important.” 

“We believe that while there’ll be some private blockchain and distributed ledger initiatives, we think it’s important to have an open blockchain and structure,” Taylor continued. 

Taylor was referring to the difference between public and closed—or ‘permissioned’—blockchains. Permissioned blockchains would function as a private system, with verifying nodes tasked and authorized by a central authority, instead of completely open to the public. Nikolai Hampton wrote in Computerworld that “many in-house blockchain solutions will be nothing more than cumbersome databases.” Taylor said that Omnitracs realizes that the best way to add value up and down the supply chain is with a public—or semi-public, ‘consortium’ blockchain—with diverse participants. 

Omnitracs thinks that even with an open network, managing privacy will be fairly easy. Taylor spoke about managing privacy “at a global or granular scale”, meaning that not only an individual party to a smart contract be able to selectively release identity-proving information in any given transaction, but also that entire companies will have their data anonymized so that a competitor can’t aggregate their data and reverse-engineer it to get a look at their rivals’ operations. “You could disclose certain kinds of information about a driver to an LTL customer that required it, but hold that same attribute back from another customer who did not require it,” said Taylor.

Taylor said that Omnitracs is still waiting for all of the regulatory dust around the ELD mandate to settle—he cited a few well-known exceptions and deferrals that have not yet been resolved—but expects that Omnitracs’ ELDs will be crucial inputs for the blockchain. “We don’t want to embark on something immediately until all the outstanding items are resolved,” said Taylor. “I don’t see the lack of regulatory clarity as a huge negative,” Taylor continued, “the critical thing is that progress [at BiTA] is being made and we’re likely to see conceptual alignments in the forum BiTA is defining around the time that everything is settled around the ELD mandate… that’s the point where you move beyond the science experiment stage in your own company to looking to do something more concrete, especially with ELDs.”

“One thing we think is interesting to us because it transcends short-haul and long-haul is chain of custody: from pharmaceuticals to cold chain, to volatiles… these are areas where, you know, there is no single common peer to peer history, which can be very important for each link in the supply chain, from the transportation and storage to handling,” said Taylor. “It could also provide information on the trailer and the driver. Custody chain looks very interesting. In addition to ELDs,  there’s other on vehicle opportunities where blockchain can be of interest, like DOT inspection requirements—at some point it might be valuable to have that record… currently these records aren’t mandated to be electronic. We have customers that use our predictive analytics to forecast noncompliance with DOT reportables.”

One of the reasons why Omnitracs is such an enthusiastic BiTA member is that the firm wants to make sure data standards have been established before it tries to develop a blockchain-based product. “We want to be a supportive peer with a reasonable computational cost,” said Taylor. “We believe that there will still be opportunities for us to facilitate significant transactions even if we wait for the standards to emerge… we’re big enough, and connected enough to fuel and service providers that there will be still enough opportunities to do that. There are a lot of exciting opportunities to use blockchain, ELDs being one of the many, but we view our effort as one that will be emphasizing alignment with the other industry players, as opposed to being out of step with what’s good for the industry.”

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.