Digital License Plates

They’re a thing:

Developers say digital plates utilize “advanced telematics”—to collect tolls, pay for parking and send out Amber Alerts when a child is abducted. They also help recover stolen vehicles by changing the display to read “Stolen,” thereby alerting everyone within eyeshot.

This makes no sense to me. The numbers are static. License plates being low-tech are a feature, not a bug.

Posted on July 3, 2019 at 6:28 AM40 Comments


Bilateralrope July 3, 2019 7:13 AM

They add so many problems. Even if I assume that these plates won’t be hacked*. For example, doing other crime in a car that’s been reported stolen makes it harder for witnesses to identify which car you used.

The only “problem” they solve is that some company isn’t making enough money.

*Did you laugh at this assumption ?
Because you should have.

Bilateralrope July 3, 2019 7:21 AM

Now think about how much trouble I could cause for someone if I report their car stolen.

Matthias Urlichs July 3, 2019 7:50 AM

The first thing any non-brain-dead thief does is to swap license plates.

Lomax July 3, 2019 7:58 AM

Oh wow, there are so many ways this can go wrong I can’t believe no one in the american transit authority (whatever it is officially called) didn’t see a single problem. The lobbyists have done a good job. Kickbacks must have been generous.

The one upside of being from a backwater third-world country is that we never spearhead these “advances”. Hopefully it takes long enough for the technology to get here that the US will show why this is a bad idea before the idea takes hold on the minds of our politicians.

David in Toronto July 3, 2019 8:01 AM

I really want to see a total cost of ownership on this. Stickers + mail + admin systems has to come in at a few dollars per year with the benefit of the registration fees. These plates cost hundreds of $ plus monthly fees in the high single digits. And the ones that can change to say stolen – how are they communicating? At what cost? Please tell me they didn’t put a SIM card in the thing. And what problems does it solve and costs does it avoid? If all of this still passes muster then we can look at all the fun and games of physical and logical hacking.

jay_B July 3, 2019 8:23 AM

Having the license plate change to “STOLEN” – this will provide no benefit and only increase risk. If the point of the plate is to be connected to everything, the police will easily be able to locate the vehicle without this indicator. All “STOLEN” will do is make a bunch of cowboys try and run the car off the road, or apprehend the person, etc., probably resulting in more people being injured or killed. What a terrible idea.

Horspool July 3, 2019 8:32 AM

All of you, even our esteemed host, are missing the point:

License plates are a state monopoly from which no one may opt out, attached to the principal means of personal mobility in our society.

There is huge value to the “digital plate” operators, so much value that they will easily bribe government officials and politicians to force cars to carry digital plates.

They will use the telematics data to track people even when the vehicle is not visible to an ALPN.

They will take a cut of highway-toll/paid-parking revenues, which they will have a monopoly on processing because nobody needs two electronic toll tags and the digital-license-plate will be ubiquitous because mandatory.

They will charge car owners for the costs of the digital plates, their maintenance, and replacement when they fail (which will be often), all at a large profit because each digital-plate supplier (there won’t be many) will have a statewide monopoly. A nice rakeoff to DMV officials (through their budgets if not directly into their pocketbooks) will ensure the enthusiasm of those people.

Digital plates will display advertising; if they can switch from ABC-123 to STOLEN they can just as well display ABC-123 alternating with OREOS-YUM (or in fastidious states, ABC-123 alternating with DON’T LITTER).

It will hardly matter that digital plates have negative value to car owners/drivers and overall negative value to society.

Forcing car owners to pay for the plates is not the most insidious harm they will inflict, but it is very galling. A regular license plate costs very little, lasts for decades, and is cheap to decorate with annual stickers. Electronic plates will cost a lot and will break often generating a blizzard of tickets for “plate out of order” making car owners pay fines, waste time taking cars to a DMV offices, and pay hugely for replacement plates.

Humdee July 3, 2019 8:43 AM

Nothing screams the silliness of a product more loudly than marketing it with the words “Amber Alert”. It is always a bug, never a feature.

Wayne July 3, 2019 9:14 AM

If these things become required, then it’s time to get a ’73 Impala, or equally pre-computerized car, and say ‘Go ahead and connect it to my odometer and oil pressure sensor and speedometer.’

This concept of ‘everything that CAN be digital MUST be digital’ is unutterably beyond ridiculous. There’s a reason why I have no IoT devices.

parabarbarian July 3, 2019 9:18 AM

These have been a “thing” for at least a year. First tested in Dubai, IIRC. They can be changed remotely, track location (an advertised feature; not a bug) and, by calculation, speed. It is the IoT for cars but drivers are not the real customer. Reviver is focusing on fleets and, of course, the DMV.

Once these get in bed with the government it will be easy enough to add insurance information as well as the automatic registration updates. Who knows yet what else. In time, your car will be broadcasting information law enforcement will undoubtedly interpret as probable cause.

TimH July 3, 2019 9:18 AM

@Horspool, @Ryan
As you say, the benefit is in the tracking. Complete knowledge of where every vehicle is at all times. Per Vizrom “The driving data that is harvested from the electronic license plate over a period of time can be used to accurately personalize…”.

Actually Vizrom’s pitch has a lot of BS. E-ink display (no cheap for that size) for low power, but where do the sensor inputs come from? Is this connected to the car battery?

David in Toronto July 3, 2019 10:19 AM

I think I’d be “far more comfortable” (yes the quotes are important) with the idea of dash cams digitizing plates and locally running them by an alert list (stolen plates, amber alerts) and reporting them. However, the privacy details, opt in/out, security design, not using it for fishing expeditions, solid policy backing behind when it can be used, keeping off the slippery slope of abuse, independent validation, of such a system would be crucial. Not that I have any confidence this could be made to work without significant top level commitment and independent monitoring.

Having said that, “far more comfortable” is a relative term when my confidence in digital plates is in the low single digit percentage points.

Moshe July 3, 2019 10:27 AM

“The plates also can advertise corporate messages when the vehicle is parked, which offers drivers a potential revenue stream.”

Oh, joy. I an have the privilege of not only paying for a service I don’t want or need, and on top of have my car display messages I don’t support.

Jason July 3, 2019 11:17 AM

The vendor says: “Your data is your data. You have complete control over your information. We’ve made sure that these plates are extremely secure.” So, really, no need to worry.

mark July 3, 2019 11:30 AM

“They might be hacked”? What, before they come out, you think they might be hacked?

(Thinks back to early nineties, when a then-huge h/d was received at work… with a virus on the shrink-wrapped drive, and you couldn’t do a low-level format to remove it.)

Now, let’s see, what’s the license plate on the vehicle Trump uses…?

Alternatively, there’ll be an black-market scanner that you point at someone else’s license plate, just before you get to the toll both. I’ve got $10 here that says that’s going to be a thing in less than a year after they offer such plates.

Alejandro July 3, 2019 11:53 AM

I see digital plates as an expected and likely expansion of the mass surveillance state.

Corporations and government could care less about bugs or security leaks. Cost is irrelevant too, because it is always passed on to the targets.

Meanwhile, something like this is sold to the suckers as a security enhancement.

The hangup on this technology and many others involving vehicles is bandwidth and connection speed. Once those issues get fixed, no vehicle will be able to escape the pan-opticon.

David in Toronto July 3, 2019 1:35 PM

@Joe D – the old Risks Mailing List had a cautionary tale of someone who went for a vanity plate. The form had 3 choices but they only had two in mind. Rather than leaving or stroking out the 3rd choice they wrote “NOPLATE”. Of course, the first two choices were taken or unacceptable and they got NOPLATE. The persons reaction went from annoyance to acceptance to pleased and finally horror. It turns out parking cops when confronted with an abandoned and plate-less car they wrote …. NOPLATE. For a time they incurred significant costs in postage disputing tickets in every jurisdiction in the state before giving up on it as a bad idea.

some guy July 3, 2019 1:40 PM

If they only consume power when changes are made, as stated in the article, wouldn’t disconnecting the plates from the power source prevent law enforcement from changing them to say “stolen”?

I don’t buy the argument that “this is a technology that’s needed.” This is just a mess waiting to happen.

Bob Paddock July 3, 2019 3:01 PM

In Pennsylvanian stickers are no longer used.
When you are stopped they look up on line and you hope the system isn’t down, as it frequently is (or was last I listened to the police scanner long ago).

In Ohio they required both front and back plates.
Some bureaucrat this year decided front plats are no longer required over the objection of law enforcement (they can no longer stand on a bridge and get you with their speed camera from the front for their revenue-enhancement, sorry I mean speed safety, project).

mrfox July 3, 2019 3:59 PM

To be fair, for companies with fleets of cars or trucks, this may actually make sense. They want telematics anyway, and may actually benefit from automating license renewals and from the novelty factor of displaying ads on the plate while the vehicle is parked, kind of like a vanity plate.

If this ever becomes mandatory… completely different story.

Norman B. July 3, 2019 6:14 PM

Implemented differently, digital license plates could be a boon for personal privacy. People these days mostly carry cameras and would take a picture of the plate when necessary rather than try to remember it. We could in principle make them show cryptographic material (in QR form) that anyone can validate but only the issuer can decode, and that changes every minute. That would kill non-governmental ALPR-based tracking, and could be done with a one-way broadcast network or no network at all.

I’m not particularly hopeful about it, but perhaps there’s a forward-thinking government somewhere that values privacy.

jc2it July 3, 2019 6:34 PM

“Your data is your data. You have complete control over your information. We’ve made sure that these plates are extremely secure.”

Oh well, why worry about it then? They made sure they were extremely secure. The extremely is what convinces me. Why even bother checking after hearing that?

Can they work on different cars? What is going to stop someone from stealing them for the heck of it? Not to mention the free toll roads for a while.

Pete July 3, 2019 7:12 PM

My local highway department put up speed limit signs that can be changed. It was just 1 sign every mile for about 100 miles around the city and they got hacked.

An expensive boondoggle of “gee-wiz” use for a week. After that, it is just a pain and unwanted.

Brett July 3, 2019 8:23 PM

Looking forward to seeing someone hack a James Bond-style licence plate switcher out of one.

Bll July 4, 2019 12:50 AM

I can see an opportunity here. Obviously if this is used for toll collection or parking fees there will need to be some standard (even if proprietary) to transmit data between the plates and the toll road or parking gate sensor. Then their will need to be some payment processing infrastructure so the funds are transferred from the vehicle owner to the road or parking owner.

So all I need to do is register as a car park or toll road with the payment processor and get hold of the required sensors. Then I can just set them up on some busy road, or even in my car as I drive around, and watch the money roll in. Most people probably won’t check to see where the money is going, and if anyone disputes the charge just say it was a mistake an here’s your money back.

I could even set it up near the entrance to an existing car park or toll road, any copy their name. The few who check their statement might just think they were double charged.

fun ahead July 4, 2019 2:33 AM

I see ages of fun ahead, connected license plates…..and guess how secure they will be……

Imagine a prime minister car with some interesting plate like “Huge Ego”

BTW license plate recognition tools (called camera) are already used for toll and parking in some parts of the world

Petre Peter July 4, 2019 7:22 AM

We already have scanners that can read regular licence plates so i really don’t see the need for this. Maybe it has something to do with police officers not wanting to memorize licence plates. If that’s the case, then police departments should pay for deployment and maintenance of these digital plates but since that’s tax money, I would say ‘no’.

Tarantula July 4, 2019 7:47 AM

After a series of driver aggressions around Y2K, public transit buses in Montréal were equipped with illuminated signs mounted outside above the windshield which merely signalled “Police 911” in red letters.

The idea was that a driver who was in danger would discreetly press a hidden button and summon help from passersby.

It’s basically the same general idea as these daft license plates. I would be surprised if this was effective or useful.

The last of these buses were retired about 10 years ago.

CallMeLateForSupper July 4, 2019 8:41 AM

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

Another wet dream, this time leveraging both electronics and comms technologies, to make $$ for Silicon Valley and Wall Street types. And I am not impressed by the “sound bites” of this article aimed at puffing up that wet dream: amber alerts; advertising; “[convenient] over-the-air registration update”; toll collection; parking lot payment.

So you save the few seconds it takes to pass cash to a parking lot attendant; that measly boost is dwarfed by the delays inherent in traffic. One would have to pay many parking fees per day, every day, to truly benefit. As for road tolls payment, I believe “there’s [already] an app for that” (Quick Pass, IPass, etc).

Since Amber Alert went live, nearly a quarter century ago, I have personally seen a total of zero alerts while I was traveling, so I can’t agree with piling it on another system.

Advertising on vehicle plates? Don’t TV, phones and computers supply quite enough of that? How would e.g. “XYZ sale ends Monday” appear on a six or seven character plate? Animate the darned thing? Oh yeah, we really need more distractions on our highways.

My understanding is that these things are gray-scale, i.e. black and white. Won’t it be difficult to tell a plate from any given state from a plate from a different state?

How will these plates perform under heat stress and cold stress and ESD? Will Florida plates go inop in a Montana winter, or will Maine plates go inop in a Texas summer? I assume that two or more mfgrs source the display; exactly who certifies the product. Where are the specs? What are the MTBFs of the major assemblies of these plates? All of these considerations (and others) matter because the guy at the bottom of the pyramid (that would be you) will have to purchase the darned thing and pay for replacement when it becomes necessary. Then there’s that pesky rent thing …. Don’t get me and @Clive started!

“How do they differ from the aluminum tags with which we now drive?”
I’ll just say that every tag that I ever screwed onto my cars were stamped.sheet.steel.

Our @Bruce said it pretty well: “License plates being low-tech [is] a feature, not a bug.”

James July 4, 2019 11:32 AM

Just more dangerous tech, but some want it because it’s “cool”.
Some interesting points in the article:

“Everything on a car has changed except the license plate,” Reviver co-founder Neville Boston said. “We think we’re helping to solve what is a problem.”

One wonders, why change it in the first place ? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
But, keeping reading:

Though Reviver says they’re secure, there are privacy concerns about “smart” plates that transmit over the air and store personal data.
“It’s still not clear where all this information is going, how long it’s stored or who has access to it.”
Said Boston: “Your data is your data. You have complete control over your information. We’ve made sure that these plates are extremely secure.”

That’s laughable, and annoying in the same time. Where have I heard that before ?

The plates also can advertise corporate messages when the vehicle is parked, which offers drivers a potential revenue stream.

Here you go.

I would never own o “connected” car, period. If the communication system cannot be disabled (and I mean really disabled, like ripping the modem out or shorting the antenna without the car’s computer bitching about it) I prefer never to buy a new car. Privacy policies and settings are useless are they are routinely ignored, either intentionally or “by mistake”. With rentals things are different, as it’s not your car in the first place.

OhGee July 5, 2019 7:21 AM

Plenty of common sense in these posts – that’s why I visit this forum I think. On most of the regular joe/jane forums, procuring one of these babies ASAP will be ranked as high as the next iPhone upgrade.

Tatütata July 5, 2019 10:24 AM

There could be a good (?) use for these: exchanging insults between drivers. With a camera and AI, computers on either could simulate road rage incidents without actually endangering people…

Another application would be to allow a lead foot to signal “get out of my way” to the leading vehicles.

However, such a message could be construed as intimidation (“Nötigung”) as in many situations where you flash your headlights. (The German term is “Lichthupe”, which translates to “lighthorn” in the sense of “luminous honking”).

I don’t quite see the use of James-Bond like dynamically changing license plates. How do you ensure that you always show the correct ID?

On this aspect, German DMVs introduced a unfalsifiable font called “FE-Schrift” circa 1995. The idea is that it is impossible to modify the shape of a glyph into another one using black tape or white-on, e.g., transforming an O into a Q. Although the purported goal was to foil license plate thefts such as those perpetrated by the RAF in the 1970s, the foremost goal was to provide an optimal font for OCR purposes. This doesn’t really mesh with data protection authorities…

BTW, I can’t understand why Cuba switched their license plates over to a German-like format, when the bulk of their vehicles have North-American plate holders. This article merely alleges unspecified economic and administrative advantages without any further explanation. Any idea?

moj0 July 5, 2019 12:03 PM

Now think about how much trouble I could cause for someone if I report their car stolen.

Think of how much havoc one could wreak by hacking the telematics system and flipping ALL cars to stolen

James July 5, 2019 12:11 PM


There could be a good (?) use for these: exchanging insults between drivers.

I totally agree, that can be the only good use. Damn, this comment made my day :))

Jurjen July 6, 2019 3:47 AM

If the manufacturen had claimed that the license plates where “secured by blockchain”, there chances of success would be greatly increased, attracting the attention of exactly the right kind of people.

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