Over the last few decades, there have been numerous technological and electronic advancements made in passenger vehicles. Drivers tend to focus on the innovative creature comforts, like in-dash GPS, satellite radio, and hands-free mobile phone applications. But electronics also play a major part in the operation of today’s vehicles, from engines that are compatible with computer diagnostic equipment to electronic crash sensors in bumpers to technology that identifies stationary objects ahead and applies brakes faster than drivers can.
Given these advancements, it’s a bit puzzling as to why the electronics trend has avoided one of the most common components of a vehicle: the license plate. Dull, unsophisticated license plates are still manufactured and affixed to vehicle exteriors; and they require periodic manual changes by drivers when they receive new plates. Consider this: the first license plates, whose basic design hasn’t changed much, appeared on cars in New York during the same year that the first radio transmission was successfully received.
That may soon be changing with the introduction of the electronic license plate. And California may be the first state to issue them.
Lawmakers in the Golden State have approved a measure which permits the rollout of electronic license plates by 2017. The technology already exists to manufacture these innovative plates, and California startup Smart Plate Mobile may be the company which begins supplying them to drivers.
What Are Electronic License Plates?
Electronic license plates aren’t made of metal, but a special “electronic paper” material that receives power through solar energy and automobile vibrations generated when a car is driven. These plates would also have the ability to be altered remotely by the California Department of Motor Vehicles or other agencies. This could allow drivers to have their tags or registration updated automatically upon sending a check or electronic payment to the DMV.
Furthermore, these plates could be changed to display certain messages. For example, if a driver’s auto insurance has expired, an UNINSURED message could appear superimposed over the letters and numbers of the plate. The same action could be taken for driver’s with suspended licenses (SUSPENDED) or for vehicles suspected in crimes (STOLEN or AMBER ALERT, for instance).
Are There Downsides to Electronic License Plates?
Not surprisingly, these electronic license plates have caught the attention of privacy advocates. Given the recent revelations concerning the NSA and other federal agencies, many people are skeptical that the technology would be limited to certain functions and not used for other purposes. Also, there are concerns that human error or hackers might be able to cause the plates to malfunction and display messages that aren’t accurate.
But on a more practical level, these new electronic plates are expensive; each one costs over $100 to make (compared to under $7 for regular plates). This raises issues for low-income drivers whose electronic license plates are damaged, although the idea of leasing these plates instead of buying them is being considered.
Will They Impact Car Insurance Rates?
Potential problems aside, it’s easy to see how electronic license plates could have a positive impact on auto insurance rates. Theoretically, the ability to identify uninsured drivers immediately would reduce the number of them on the roads, which could lead to lower insurance costs for everyone. And if a vehicle were to be stolen, these electronic plates could improve the (already stellar) auto theft recovery rates in California, which also has the effect of lower insurance premiums.
While there’s certainly no crystal ball, it’s easy to imagine electronic license plates becoming as standard as seat belts or airbags in California vehicles that will be driven by people who are just in booster seats today. If that’s true, hopefully auto insurance rates will drop so that they benefit everyone who operates a vehicle in the Golden State.
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