California Could Be The First State To Get Electronic License Plates

September 9, 2013

Several months ago, news feeds were buzzing about Compliance Innovations, a South Carolina startup hoping to bring electronic licence plates to cars across the country. According to ArsTechnica, such plates will soon be a reality, but they'll probably appear in California first.

If you've not heard of the electronic license plate, it's about what you'd expect: an electronic display that attaches to a vehicle in the same spot(s) as a normal license plate. With these gadgets in place, motorists no longer need to change out their plates every few years; instead, the plates update wirelessly when motorists renew their vehicle registrations.

As an added bonus -- or problem, depending on your point of view -- a car's plates can be changed remotely, on the go. For example, a plate could reveal that a driver's insurance has expired. Electronic tags could also help police spot stolen vehicles more quickly, or aid during Amber Alerts. (For a look at how that might work, check out the video above.)

Last week, the California legislature approved a bill authorizing the rollout of electronic licence plates by 2017. The governor is expected to sign it, and one of Compliance Innovations' competitors -- a Bay-Area startup called Smart Plate Mobile -- is likely to benefit big time.


The tinfoil-hatters among us argue that electronic license plates seem very Big Brother. In light of recent revelations about the fed's ability to track and tap into most smartphones, the last thing we need is one more way for the government to monitor and regulate us from their secret bunkers.

On the other hand, bringing plates into the digital age could save states significant sums of cash by standardizing licence plates. It could also encourage motorists to keep their insurance policies up to date and prevent uninsured vehicles from getting on the road -- which would, over time, save law-abiding motorists money on their annual premiums.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, it's pretty clear that electronic plates -- or something like them -- are in the cards. Frankly, we're a little surprised that automakers haven't beaten Compliance Innovations to the punch, angling for a portion of vehicle registration dollars. (The lag is doubly perplexing since companies like General Motors already hold patents for electronic plate technology.)

Undoubtedly, electronic plates will chip away at our personal privacy. Our hope as voters, taxpayers, and motorists is that they do so as little as possible, while still offering a net benefit.


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