MAY 30, 2018 10:25 AM PDT

Digital License Plates Launch in California

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

California is in the middle of a pilot of digital license plates, and the city of Sacramento is the first to sign up for a test run in May 2018. The plates replace the traditional metal signs with electronic screens. Their messages can be remotely changed and the plates can also be tracked. Like many new technologies, the plates may offer convenience and innovation for a price -- both in terms of dollars and privacy. Regardless, Sacramento is excited to be an early adopter and the city’s Innovation Officer Louis Stewart said that along with a new 5G Wifi network, the plates can make Sacramento a prime location for driverless car testing and job growth in cutting-edge sectors.

"We want to look at ourselves as a laboratory for a lot of these technology companies. Come to test in Sacramento, come see how your product or service is viable,” Stewart told The Sacramento Bee.

Digital plate, credit: Tony Bizjak of The Bee

The plates use the same technology as Kindle eBook screens. Kindles use electronic ink or E Ink, a type of electronic display tech that offers high contrast images with relatively low power usage. They each have a computer chip, wireless communication system and battery. Individual drivers and institutions who use the plates can register and update them online. Plates will likely be sold at dealerships for around $700 and will also require a fee of $7 per month. Dealership sales in California are imminent.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has set up this introductory use of the digital car tags in conjunction with their manufacturer, Reviver Auto. Sacramento received 24 plates for free to use on its fleet of city cars.

The plates can be tracked, which will be helpful for organizations that need to manage their vehicles. The feature may also be useful in counteracting car theft. It raises privacy concerns as well -- Sacramento city officials will meet with labor representatives to agree on not using the tech to track employees.

Sacramento will probably be trying out the plates as changeable public message boards, Stewart said. They are designed to be able to display messages when the car is stopped, at which point the license plate number shrinks and moves to the corner. Possible uses include service messages like street closure notices, advertisements for city offerings or emergency alerts. Businesses may use the new plates to display commercial messages in the future, too.

"The purpose of the pilot is to identify and detail potential benefits, so we are still in the evaluation phase and won’t make any determinations until the pilot concludes," a DMV spokesman told The Bee, in response to questions about future applications of the new car labeling and tracking systems. California will include about 175,000 cars in the pilot process and has about 116 on the roads so far. The DMV is required to report on the test-run to the California legislature in the summer of 2020.


The Sacramento Bee

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech, conservation and the arts. She enjoys solutions journalism. Find more of her work at
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