California launches nation's first digital license plate pilot

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Metal-stamped license plates have gone virtually unchanged for more than a century, but California announced this week that it wants to experiment with bringing vehicle identification into the digital age.

As first reported by the Sacramento Bee, the California Department of Motor Vehicles is now leading a pilot project to identify the potential benefits of digital license plates from vendor Reviver Auto. Some local governments in the state are already exploring how the technology can improve operation of vehicle fleets, the newspaper reported.

The plates, which are sold by the company for $699 and can not be purchased from the state, feature digital displays, geo-tracking and trip-logging capabilities. Messages beneath the plate number can be customized using a computer or smart phone application. The main display of the plate can also be customized to display messages when the vehicle is parked.

The pilot follows legislation — SB 806 — passed in 2013 that permits a pilot project to test “use of alternatives to the stickers, tabs, license plates, and registration cards” currently allowed by state code. That legislation was extended in 2016 to allow the DMV additional time to launch the project.

Now, agency spokesperson Marty Greenstein told StateScoop, the department is in the evaluation phase but “won’t make any determinations until the pilot concludes.” The department is required to submit a report to the legislature by July 1, 2020.

The project comes with several restrictions, such as a requirement that the project be approved by the Department of the California Highway Patrol. The project must also come at no cost to the state, and there is a limit on how many vehicles will be permitted to use the new plates — 0.5 percent of the state’s total vehicle population, or about 175,000 vehicles. So far, the state reports there are only 116 vehicles with digital plates on the road.

In addition to the initial cost of each plate, drivers must also pay a monthly fee of approximately $7. The digital offering is being marketed as a convenient alternative to traditional plates for those who can afford it. The digital plates can be registered remotely — no sticker needed, but drivers must still keep the metal plate inside the car. The DMV isn’t dropping its registration fees, however, and the agency told StateScoop it works with the vendor to handle the registration process.

“There is no extra paperwork on the customer’s part,” Greenstein said in an email.

Naturally, the introduction of this new digital technology is raising security and privacy concerns. Alex Roy of news site The Drive writes that digital plates are the future, “unfortunately.” Roy says “what little privacy we have left is annihilated” through the technology’s telematics and location-tracking.

Reviver Auto promises that its product is not only “cool-looking” but backed by strong security and privacy standards.

The company’s website says vehicle owners can “rest assured that their data, especially usage/telematic information, is never shared with the DMV, law enforcement or any other third party.”

It also says the telematics and location-data feature can be turned off by the user at will.

The data security behind the plate includes “cloud infrastructure hosted in a virtual private network encrypted with 256-bit crypto keys,” according to the company website.

“Reviver Auto regularly conducts audits and penetration tests to ensure its systems are secure,” the website reads.

The plates also come with physical security features — the company says its plates are “tamper-proof.”

The Sacramento city government intends to exploit the location-tracking feature of the new plates for more efficient management of its vehicle fleets. Louis Stewart, Sacramento’s chief innovation officer, told the Bee the city ordered 24 new Chevy Volts with electronic plates last week.

The plates could also be used to display public safety messages like Amber Alerts, Stewart said. More broadly, Stewart says the project will be included as a piece of the Sacramento Urban Technology Lab, a sweeping economic development initiative aiming to use university and private business partnerships to turn the region into a living laboratory for new technologies, services and ideas.

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California, digital license plates, DMV, Emerging Technology, Internet of Things, Reviver Auto, State & Local News, States, Tech News, Transportation
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