In the tech world, sometimes an esoteric concept or program becomes so useful and handy that it gets pulled out of the shadows and into broader public use. Email, for example, began in 1969 as a way for computer scientists to send messages from one computer to another.
There's another technology emerging that could have a significant impact on the auto industry. It could affect how automakers pay suppliers across the seas, how consumers pay for car-sharing services and even possibly how dealerships handle legal paperwork.
The technology, called blockchain, began as a way to make payments with the digital currency bitcoin. This new payment system is starting to show up in the auto industry. At the Frankfurt auto show this month, auto supplier ZF and IBM announced they are jointly developing a payment platform for vehicle services based on blockchain technology. Dubbed Car eWallet, the platform would allow for a variety of services, from car-sharing to in-vehicle purchase to dealership repairs, to process payments simply and securely.
Toyota, consulting firm EY and French carmaker Renault also are researching applications for the technology.
So here's everything you need to know about blockchain: how it works, its history in the shadowy world of digital currency and why it may be key to launching shared, self-driving fleets of the future.