license plate

California pilots electronic license plates -- will other states follow?

California is piloting electronic license plates to improve efficiency,  lower the cost of DMV vehicle registration services and eliminate the need for vehicle owners, particularly fleet owners, to receive physical registration tags by mail, according to a bill analysis by California’s Senate Rules Committee. 

The Assembly Appropriations Committee said it will cost less than $50,000 for the DMV to administer the pilot program and complete the evaluation report. However, the plates most likely will come at a cost for drivers, said David Findlay of Compliance Innovations,  an electronic license plate manufacturer. Findlay told Time magazine the plates could cost around $100, at least five times the price of a typical license plate fee.

The electronic plates would serve as alternatives to California's traditional metal license plate, plastic-coated registration stickers and paper registration cards. California’s DMV annually registers approximately 26 million vehicles and performs over 10 million renewals.

Senate Bill 806, signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown in early October, calls for the pilot to be established by Jan. 1, 2017. The pilot will be limited to no more than 0.5 percent of registered vehicles and vehicle owners who have voluntarily chosen to participate.

While the bill does not specifically state which devices will be tested, the bill analysis did mention a provider, Smart Plate Mobile, which was incorporated in 2009 and is based in San Francisco, as being “the company most interested in participating in such a pilot project.” Smart Plate Mobile’s plates are computer screens that would take on the size and appearance of a standard California license plate. Since the plates can receive wireless updates from a central server, they could also display additional messages such as “stolen” or “expired.” 

Smart Plate Mobile does not have a website. 

Artemio Armenta, a DMV spokesperson, told Ars Technica that "postage costs associated with vehicle licensing and registration does exceed $20 million annually." 

A similar bill proposed in California in 2010 would have allowed advertisements to scroll on the screen if a car was stopped for more than three seconds, Ars reported. The ads were envisioned as an additional revenue source for the DMV. The current bill does not include provisions for advertising, the Sacramento Bee reported

California is not the only state considering electronic license plates. Florida passed a law last year allowing them, but the program does not yet have a start date. South Carolina and New Jersey have similar bills in progress. 

Many have expressed privacy concerns with the project, with the ACLU of Sacramento County invoking the term “big brother.”

Responding to concerns about tracking expressed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an amendment was added to California’s bill to limit the data exchanged “to that data necessary to display evidence of registration compliance. The department shall not receive or retain any information generated during the pilot program regarding the movement, location or use of a vehicle participating in the pilot program.”

Still, Lee Tien, an attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that while the DMV will not be receiving location information in the pilot, the company providing the plates would, and it would control what is on the plates, reported the Capitol Hill Daily.

“We’re surprised and disappointed that this bill seems to be proceeding without any serious exploration of the privacy risks,” Tien said. “Just because it’s a pilot doesn’t excuse the legislature of responsibility.”

Other potential concerns include the potential for the plates to be monitored or hacked by other parties. 

Ars noted that the technical details of the program are unclear as well as how long plate information would be retained and who would have access to it.

The DMV will be responsible for sharing the results of the pilot program with the California Legislature no later than July 1, 2018, Government Technology reported. The report will address some of these privacy concerns, including whether the devices have the ability to transmit and retain information regarding vehicle location, movement or use. If the product does have that feature, the report will also include whether there are safeguards against the information falling into unauthorized hands. 

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Reader Comments

Tue, Apr 22, 2014

Funny ....people are worried about tracking when they hold a cell phone all day, use Gmail, and allow mobile apps to have access to their phone.........Really???

Sat, Jan 4, 2014

There you go people... there is some more of our rights you all are just throwing out the window. When are people going to wake up? Tracking us like animals!

Mon, Nov 18, 2013

I'll buy that for a dollar

Tue, Oct 29, 2013

License plates take a LOT of physical abuse. I haven't seen a display screen yet that can take rock hits or multiple trips through a car wash. Not to mention, kids strolling through parking lots and licking them just to see what happens. A better solution for fleets that want to opt in would be a distinctive permanent plate, and an RFID pod in rear window that cops could interrogate, similar to an EZ-Pass.

Mon, Oct 28, 2013

Won't everyone be happy when the server is hacked and all the plates say STOLEN.

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