License Plates Are Next in Line to Receive the Silicon Valley Treatment

By: Bridget Clerkin April 27, 2018
Digital license plates like this one from the firm Reviver will soon be coming to bumpers in California and Arizona.
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It’s just another piece of metal bolted to a steel machine, yet the simplicity of its purpose begets an unassuming beauty: it is a loyal messenger, proudly displaying the alpha-numeric code of tenure, proclaiming a vehicle’s official identity to all the world.

But at the dawn of transportation’s new age, even the humble license plate can’t escape a digital makeover.

Seemingly the last inanimate object attached to our cars is facing the inevitable upgrade thanks to tech start-up Reviver, which has officially brought its “smart” number plates to California.

Called the rPlate, the digital tag virtually displays a car’s ID number and registration but, plugged in to the ever-growing Internet of Things, it can do so much more.

It will become a member of the increasingly-connected roadway, joining a swelling chorus of communication between vehicles, signs, and other infrastructure as the network of enlightened objects work to guide us further on down the road.

California will issue up to 100,000 of the new-age plates this year for anyone interested in making the $599 purchase—plus an $8 monthly fee—with the largest Ford dealership in the world, located just outside of L.A., distributing the first round of the digital tags starting this month.

Hailed by many in the tech world as an important and natural step forward, the device will certainly bring a host of new possibilities to the lowly number plate—but such uncharted territory also comes with a lack of rules and regulations necessary to reign in the influx of data the plates will carry.

Endless Possibilities

Reviver execs say the plate will be able to automatically update a vehicle’s registration thanks to a system called RConnect, which interfaces the device directly with the CA DMV.

That streamlined process stands to save California up to $20 million annually on postage alone, and could capture untold millions in registration and insurance renewal fees that would otherwise go unpaid—the prospect of which was undoubtedly the plate’s biggest selling point, and proved appealing enough for the state to approve the technology for testing in 2013. But that’s not all the 6-by-12-inch digital screen can do.

In its fullest expression, the rPlate will have carte blanche access to the smorgasbord of information on the Internet, allowing the device to “know” about important breaking news that could then be scrolled across the screen—including AMBER alerts, government recalls, severe weather warnings, and even an alert showing if the car it’s attached to has been reported stolen.

Other incarnations include a bank account for paying roadway tolls; a digital parking permit; and even a personal billboard.  

The plate’s platform will allow customized messages to be programmed and put on display, appearing when the car is parked or idled, though the approval process for such proclamations—or whether there will be one at all—has yet to be determined.

And it’s not the only legal gray area the rPlate currently treads in. 

Location, Location, Location...  

Coupled with its inherent knowledge of where it is, where it’s been, and where it’s going, the beefed-up brain of a digital license plate could put together a pretty significant dossier on all of its drivers. But just how much information the tags will collect, how it will be used, and who will have access to it remains to be seen.

Reviver execs have not been shy in the past about their commercial ambitions for the digital tags, saying the built-in GPS technology could be especially useful for target-based advertising. (Parked at a Home Depot, for example, a smart plate user could see store promotions scrawl across their screens, Reviver CEO Neville Boston once opined.)

Opened to the free market, the technology could house a virtual showdown of ads between competing businesses using the geo-tracking information to announce nearby deals.

And Reviver wants to give those corporate sponsors as much face time as possible, working on a stronger battery for the device—which currently runs on lithium-ion packs that recharge while the car is moving—specifically to ensure the plate will be capable of staying on for years, even if a car remains off.

The private sector isn’t the only area where such personal information would be coveted. The plates make the perfect tool for policing, with the capability to track a driver’s speed and other roadway behavior coupled with the digital competency to relay that information to local authorities. (A driver’s misdeeds could conceivably also be displayed on the plate.)

Still, it seems the trail to such a future has already been laid, and California isn’t the only state ready to blaze it.

Two Is Company…

Not to be outdone by their new-age automotive rival, Arizona’s Department of Transportation announced last week that it would also welcome the digital plates on its roads, though still only in a testing capacity.

At stake is the possibility of saving up to $1.8 million on labor and postage used to manually inform residents that their registration is due, the state agency said.

And interest in the product is spreading, with Reviver reporting possible collaborations with Texas, Florida, and even the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The company boasts on its website of dislodging the 125-year-old piece of stamped metal from a vehicle’s bumper, replacing it instead with something “cool-looking” and “multi-functional”: a new plate for a new age.

Indeed, this new digital world has invited the objects around us to peek inward at our lives, and a plugged-in license plate is right in line with this trend, turning a former marker of self-identification into a prolific profiler of our private identities.

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