In our democratic digital age, it’s not just “we the people” who have all been given a voice—that right has been extended to our things, as well. But the latest object to join the conversation may have more to say than we’d like.
Electronic license plates are currently under consideration or being tested in several key states nationwide, with interest in the idea—both monetary and governmental—gaining recent momentum.
The technology would replace the aluminum slabs that bookend our vehicles with LCD screens, bringing with it the limitless possibilities of a digital format and bridging the gap between our smart cars and our not-quite-as-informed number plates.
It’s the next natural step in advancing automotive technology, but the potential implications of a computerized plate reach far beyond a sleeker display—or even an easier time at the DMV—and may test what, if any, boundaries remain in this increasingly interconnected world.
The idea of a “smart” license plate isn’t exactly a new one, but a unique platform unveiled at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit by San Francisco company Reviver has given it new legs.
Called the “rPlate,” the platform officially inducts the lowly license plate into the “Internet of Things”—the alliance of previously inanimate objects which have since switched on, becoming computerized, connected, and communicative.
Such a tag would not merely showcase a vehicle ID in all the brilliance of a state-of-the-art screen, but also have the ability to “talk to” other enlightened objects around it. The plate could tap into and simultaneously broadcast all of the data being invisibly projected by the connected cars and ever-more connected infrastructure around us, as well as the information emanating from our individual vehicles, giving the device an intimate view of our daily driving habits.
It can also directly interface with the DMV. In fact, the ability to streamline processes like registration renewal was an important step for the platform to gain footing in California, where the technology is currently being tested on fleet vehicles. Companies avoid the hassle of coordinating around the physical stickers and notoriously long lines of the state agency, and receive a real-time view of how their cars—and drivers—are operating.
(For its part, the California DMV could stand to save up to $20 million annually on the postage needed to send out registration notices alone—not to mention recoup the millions lost each year on missed insurance and registration renewals.)
The boundless nature of our wireless world means the applications of a plugged-in plate are only as limited as its ability to connect.
Using the same technology that powers your cell phone’s data plan, the 6-by-12-inch screen could pull information directly from the Internet, allowing it to display any number of additional notes on its face, from Amber alerts to weather warnings.
Government-issued recalls, tracked by VIN number, could appear on the appropriate screens as soon as they’re announced, like a new age “Check Engine” light. The tolls you roll through could be tallied—and debited—on the spot. And the platform even leaves room for the driver to designate personal messages and images to display to the world.
With testing still in its infancy, exactly how and when all of that information would be disseminated has yet to be worked out—as well as who, if anyone, would decide what the plate could say or what constitutes an “appropriate” message for public consumption.
Those nuances will likely fall to individual state DMVs to discern. Along with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, several others have signed on to take up that challenge, including the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, where prototypes will be sent by year’s end.
And the increased interest in the rPlate has come not just from the government, but the private sector, as well. This January, Reviver was the benefactor of a nearly $7 million investment in the the platform by a conglomerate of international financial firms.
Still, the possibility of piecemeal implementation and regulation will likely leave a lot of grey areas to work around as the technology continues to expand.
One aspect of the rPlate that’s much more black and white, however, is the program’s propensity—and Reviver’s ambition—to bring the world of advertising directly to our license plates.
And with the type of information such an object is privy to by the simple virtue of its daily usage, those ads could arguably become some of the world’s most highly-targeted messages.
Fitted with GPS technology, the rPlate could be used to geo-track so precisely that it could display advertisements on behalf of a store a driver is parked directly in front of.
Fitted with GPS technology, the rPlate could be used to geo-track so precisely that it could display advertisements on behalf of a store a driver is parked directly in front of—or announce better deals from nearby competitors. In fact, that’s the exact scenario CEO Neville Boston used to explain the plate’s capacity for marketability.
And while California has so far determined that a digital plate would have to project the same image until its vehicle has come to rest for at least 5 seconds, once the car is stopped, the device can go—and go, and go—likely enduring for much longer than the auto would be stationary.
A lithium-iron battery fuels the plate, recharging each time the car is used, in a similar way that hybrid vehicles currently keep their batteries refreshed. Built-in sensors allow the platform to recognize when a car has been idle, so it can dim—but not diminish—the display, in order to preserve the plate’s power as long as possible. One of the company’s future goals, Reviver told SFGate.com, lies in extending that lifecycle—and, subsequently, the chance to showcase ads—even further, potentially lasting for years on end.
But whether members of the public would have a choice about turning their cars into mobile billboards, and whether they would be afforded any control over the specific ads their vehicles would promote from their driveways and curbsides, has yet to be determined—like much else in this new industry.
Something Unknown This Way Comes
Still, as our cars get smarter, they get to know us better, and this learning curve would certainly extend to our plugged-in plates.
With unfettered access to our behind-the-wheel habits, plus the assistance of a venerable buffet of tools like GPS and an accelerometer, our e-plates could, in fact, discern a trove of information about us—from where we’re going to where we’ve been, and from how we got there to how long it took us to arrive.
Add to that the limitless reach of the Internet’s bullhorn, and the plates could be used to broadcast such facts to any number of sources—whether displayed outright on their screens or through the wireless waves that already transmit so much of our daily experience across the world.
While neither Reviver nor the state agencies currently pursuing the technology have openly discussed rPlate’s usage outside of making DMV-related transactions and displaying ads, it doesn’t take much to see the directions in which it could extend.
Speeding incidents could be logged on the spot, with the plate either citing an offender directly or sending the violator’s location to the nearest authorities. Registration and insurance status could be shown for all to see, giving police, and everyone else on the road, a preemptive indication of any such illegal behavior.
And as artificial intelligence grows, along with membership in the Internet of Things club, there will likely be even more for our license plates to say in the future, and more animated objects for them to talk to. In the end, we may want to extend one more right to our e-plates—the right to remain silent.