Automobiles have changed quite a bit since Karl Benz invented the first one in the late 1800s, but vehicle registration plates? No, not so much.
In 1901, New York required owners to register their vehicles with the state, but the plates themselves were largely bespoke — the only requirement was to include the registrants’ initials. The overall design was up to the imagination of owners, meaning a plate could actually be a plank of wood with painted letters.
The faults of this system are obvious so in 1903, NY distributed state-issued vehicle registration numbers. It was Massachusetts, however, that became the first state to issue government-sanctioned hard plates that same year. And we’ve been attaching these identifying sheets of metal to our vehicles ever since.
The majority feature stamped, raised letters, à la prison production, while a growing number are laser etched. But in our Internet of Things (IoT) world where connectivity and screens command our attention at nearly every task, why not the lowly license plate, too?
Digital, or smart, license plates are currently being tested in pilot programs in Arizona and California. Sacramento was the first city to receive electronic plates from startup Reviver Auto, which touts its RPlate as the world’s first digital license plate. Michigan is the first state to formally pass legislation with Florida and Texas also legalizing their usage.
Perhaps this is inevitable, but below are a few considerations as to why you shouldn’t be clamoring for the latest tech in license plate technology. At least not yet.
Vehicle registration and renewal fees generally cover the production and shipping of standard plates. Not so with digital ones. Currently, Reviver Auto is the only supplier of its kind, so pricing is literally unmatched. In addition to registration costs, the starting price of the RPlate Essential is $499 while the RPlate Pro, which offers telematics, jumps to $799. All RPlates include a complimentary one-year digital service subscription, which alone costs $99.
Your travels can already be tracked via the GPS in your vehicle, and now also your telematics-enabled license plate. While a great tool for businesses and fleet managers, the same can’t be said for private citizens. Reviver states that data is not shared with government agencies or third parties, and that individuals can turn off location data, but since when is personal information not a salable commodity?
Digital license plates are yet another computer to which hackers can get access to. Reviver claims to utilize the same security standards as financial institutions, but isn’t it easier to count the number of banks who haven’t been a victim of cyber-attacks lately?
If you’re a fan of the Kindle but wished it were bulkier, then an e-plate may be for you. But if large, monochromatic displays don’t tug at your fashion heartstrings, the RPlate is downright boring. Its basic design does showcase easy-to-read, HD characters and can also accommodate for some special-interest causes and personal distinctions, but specialty plates that require specific colors and detail might be gone.
There are an estimated 280 million registered vehicles in the United States. Considering many DMVs are operating on antiquated equipment, what are states’ capabilities when it comes to digital management, even if currently in limited availability? Also, some states—like California and New York—require both a front and rear plate. The RPlate is approved for rear placement only and, therefore, vehicle owners will still have to use a traditional hard plate in the front.
There remain more questions than answers regarding digital license plates. But like any brand-new, the-future-is-here technology, it’s probably best to let the confetti of excitement settle before a purchase can be made with confidence.