Are Digital License Plates the Future?

September 10, 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013, by Kyle Evans
Governor Brown’s signature is all that’s needed to make an alternative license plate pilot program a reality in California.  The pilot program would implement digital license plates on a limited basis to evaluate whether the state will adopt the electronic plates on a large scale.  The program would replace standard metal license plates with small, 12” x 6”, computer screens.  The digital plates will be programmed to display license plate numbers, and will also wirelessly receive updates from the agency administering the pilot program.  The plates could also be used to display information about whether the registration was expired or even if the car was stolen.
The bill, introduced by Senator Hueso (D), hopes to create savings for the California DMV by eliminating its registration-by-mail, which currently costs California over $20 million each year.  The program is limited to only half a percent of registered California drivers, with a focus on including fleet owners like UPS and FedEx.  By creating an electronic system of real-time updates on car registration, the DMV hopes to reduce postage costs and streamline the renewal process for millions of California drivers.
Unfortunately, the electronic license plate program may create more problems than it solves.  This bill is being met with increased skepticism in the wake of a disastrous summer of public relations for the NSA.  Many folks are concerned about a constant, wireless connection between their car and a government agency.  The bill does prohibit the DMV from collecting location data on registered cars.  The bill doesn’t, however, make it clear whether location data will be collected long term or what the company operating the license plates can do with the data.  The bill also fails to mention safeguards against an outside attack at the plate’s functionality.  Even with security measures in place, digital plates may still be susceptible to malicious hacking attempts that could gather location data or tamper with the plate’s digital display.
There are other problems not addressed by the bill.  For instance, there is no discussion of how the digital plate will stand up against extreme heat or cold, or physical damage from traffic collisions or vandalism.  Who will be responsible for replacing malfunctioning license plates?  Is the DMV really going to save money on postage—less than a dollar per registered driver—by switching to electronic plates more vulnerable to physical damage and digital tampering?

Unfortunately, the electronic license plate program may create more problems than it solves.

Perhaps the program will address these concerns and present the legislature with a report outlining shortcomings and fixes for the electronic plates.  Pilot programs are specifically designed to serve as a trial run before wider implementation.  Based on initial reaction, however, the pilot program certainly has a lot to prove if the legislature hopes to garner state-wide support.  As one Ars Technica commenter, RickyP784, put it, this may just be “a solution in search of a problem.”