The ordinary car licence plate's days may be numbered

A digital license plate made by Bay Area company Reviver Auto is displayed at Reviver Auto headquarters in California, the first US state to test digital license plates on vehicles.
A digital license plate made by Bay Area company Reviver Auto is displayed at Reviver Auto headquarters in California, the first US state to test digital license plates on vehicles. PHOTO: AFP

FOSTER CITY, CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - The mundane vehicle licence plate - along with the windshield wiper - a virtually unchanged vestige from the dawn of the automobile, is in the midst of a 21st-century makeover.

Several companies are applying digital technology to what has long been just a slab of metal, in hopes of making it cheaper to update your vehicle's registration - and turning it into a portal to the connected world.

Such changes benefit the vehicle owner as well as state motor vehicle regulators, according to Reviver Auto, a company in Foster City, California, that has developed technology to swap old-fashioned stamped plates for digital screens.

"This is not about a licence plate," Reviver's chief executive Neville Boston said. "It's about connection. With a digital plate, you can be all connected in just one place."

Reviver Auto's RPlate can be validated via cellular signal when registration fees are paid, saving a state the cost of postage and materials for paper renewals.

The screen can display anything, making it easy to switch designs if an owner wants to buy a vanity plate. Amber Alerts can be flashed on the plate; if the vehicle is stolen, the plate can be changed to display that fact.

When the vehicle is parked, businesses can display advertisements on the plate, even targeting a vehicle's particular location because the plate is connected to GPS. The GPS would also allow commercial fleet owners to track their vehicles.

To make it work, Reviver uses the E Ink technology that is in tablet book readers like the Kindle and Nook. The system produces a bright black-and-white image that Mr Boston likens to that found in a Kindle Paperwhite.

The 2-pound (0.9kg) unit is able to withstand strong winds and rain. As with an e-book reader, the image will remain even if the unit runs out of power.

Reviver has permission to sell the plates in California as part of a pilot programme. The test will run through this year, with a report due in 2020. State legislation authorising a pilot programme for alternatives to traditional plates and stickers was signed in 2013, and Reviver was the only bidder.

"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," said Mr Marty Greenstein, a spokesman for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

As part of the programme, the city of Sacramento has already affixed digital plates to 24 of its Chevy Bolts and will display various messages on them. No more than half a per cent of the registered vehicles in the state, about 170,000, will be allowed to use a digital rear plate. The front remains standard issue, and the driver must carry a regular rear plate in the vehicle in case the digital version malfunctions.

There should be no problem keeping the number of takers low, as the high price of the plate is sure to suppress sales.

The consumer version of the RPlate, sold through auto dealers, will cost US$699 (S$952), plus US$99 for the first year and US$75 a year after that to connect to the system's cellular network.

 
 

Mr Boston expects the upfront cost for consumers to drop by 30 per cent in less than a year, and the company's goal is to eventually get it down to US$150.

Once advertisers come on board, drivers could get a rebate, either through fees paid to them for agreeing to let their plate promote products, or through discounts for those products.

Reviver will start testing its RPlate in Arizona in August and Nevada and Pennsylvania later this year; by next year, it expects to expand its pilot programmes to Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and Washington.

The company is also conducting a test in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where drivers will be able to use the plate to alert other drivers to road conditions.