The Latest Tech Frontier: Electronic License Plates

Fast-moving technology and slow-moving bureaucracies may stop them from ever becoming widely adopted, but electronic license plates aren't as far-fetched as they might sound

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Imagine you’re driving down the highway when the license plate on the car in front of you starts to flash a message: “AMBER ALERT.” Rather than embossed metal letters, the plate is covered in electronic paper, like the faux pages of a Kindle. A signal, bounced off a cell tower, was received by the plate, which has a tiny lithium battery charged by the vibrations of the car. Law enforcement authorities made the call to beam that signal, and now you, the person behind this driver, know that the vehicle has been linked to a kidnapping.

Electronic license plates may be the next step in the digital reinvention of our everyday lives. A growing group of entrepreneurs and lawmakers want to upgrade the aluminum rectangles on our cars with more dynamic material. “It’s flowing forward,” says David Findlay of Compliance Innovations, a manufacturer of one prototype. But while states like California are taking the issue seriously, the era of electronic license plates, if it comes about at all, is still years away.

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Gov. Jerry Brown will soon decide whether to sign legislation that would allow roughly 160,000 Californians to sign up for a pilot program exploring alternatives to traditional renewal stickers and license plates. Florida passed a similar provision in 2012, allowing the state’s vehicle authority to try out plate “designs, concepts, and technologies” not yet on the road. Officials in Ohio and other states are slated to hear presentations from Findlay’s company, a South Carolina startup and one of few players in the field.

Findlay, a former DMV administrator, hopes to start producing plates for up to seven states within the next decade. He sells his product as a way to bolster state revenue by shaming delinquent drivers into paying fees or buying insurance, make it easy for drivers to change their plate designs and aid law enforcement. Consider, he says, a glaring label that marks a car as uninsured or stolen. “You’re not looking at a tiny decal,” he says. “You’re looking at a vehicle that has a scarlet letter.” A spokesperson for the California bill’s author, state Sen. Ben Hueso, says that bill is primarily designed to create savings, like eliminating the $20 million in postage that the state spends each year on things like reminding drivers about renewal stickers.

The California pilot program is designed to cost less than $50,000. But if that plan made it to a statewide implementation phase, those savings would come up against others costs, like overhauling the existing license-plate production infrastructure. There are also fees that would likely be passed onto drivers. Findlay estimates that their plates, for instance, would cost around $100, at least five times a typical license plate fee. While Hueso’s bill might eliminate the man hours spent sealing and shipping envelopes, other employees would have to make sure new-fangled license plates were functioning.

A state-issued electronic gizmo inevitably yields other complications. Privacy proponents have expressed concerns that electronic plates could be monitored or hacked. Findlay says their plates are protected by multiple layers of encryption, designed to receive a signal from a cell tower only when an image is changed and that law enforcement would need multiple court orders to use the plate in order to locate a car. The California bill has a provision built in that prohibits the DMV from collecting or retaining data about “the movement, location, or use of a vehicle” in the pilot program. Still, with the NSA’s monitoring capabilities fresh in the public’s mind, critics like the Electronic Frontier Foundation remain skeptical of any wirelessly connected plate.

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There are other skeptics, too. Gartner automotive analyst Thilo Koslowski wagers that while a scarlet letter might deter some thieves, it would inspire a “new breed” of bandits, too. “It sounds good at first,” he says, “but you actually have to support a technology that hasn’t proved itself.” There is the question of durability and whether a digital plate would have a non-reflective surface that would be less visible at night. Findlay says his company tested its plates in heat up to 122 degrees. Koslowski points out that an aluminum slat has proved sturdy in heat, snow, dirt and heavy rain.

Pro or con, the issues surrounding electronic license plates may simply be preempted by more advanced technology. The U.S. government is funding research on vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which would allow cars to connect through wireless signals, sharing information about where they are (like in your blind spot) or whether there’s a accident up ahead. Koslowski says “V2V” could also display warnings about amber alerts on a navigation screen or emit signals that tell police a vehicle is uninsured, bypassing the need for visual confirmation—and avoiding a situation where civilians might be tempted to dangerously “play cop.”

Although Florida passed a law that would allow for an electronic license plate program last year, it still doesn’t have a start date, partly because of how rapidly the technology is developing. “If you’re going to change your license plate,” says state spokeswoman Leslie Palmer, “you don’t want it to be immediately outdated the minute you put it on cars.”

Even though the idea has been around for years, electronic license plates still seem futuristic. Maybe that’s because it will be a while yet before a bulk of states prove willing to reform old programs.

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