The Department of Motor Vehicles doesn’t have a reputation for being a hotbed of innovation. But nothing under its control is as stagnant as the license plate.
"Every other technology from the driver’s license to the registration system has been kept up to date," says former DMV computer system architect Brian Bannister. "This is the only technology that’s still the same way it was a hundred years ago."
Bannister and former South Carolina DMV administrator David Findlay are seeking to change that, with a trackable, electronic display that could alert the authorities when a car is stolen or uninsured.
Instead of running plate numbers in computer systems and peering at stickers, the license plate itself would make a car’s status clear, with, for instance, the word "UNINSURED" in big red letters. "Our idea is to bring compliance to the plate itself, with a scarlet letter that can be whatever the state wishes," says Bannister.
The concept started seven years ago, when it was even more of a moon-shot. A supplier at the time quoted a price of $40,000 for a clunky, black-and-white plate-replacer. In today’s post-Kindle world, they expect to charge just over $100 for a device that’s full color and very thin. "Think of your sheet cover. That thin," says Bannister. And that’s including technology that collects power from the sun and vibrations, and communicates with the DMV.
Given current license plate costs that run $4 to $7 a plate, $100 is still far from cheap. "This is a little bigger check to write," Bannister admits.
But he believes that at the right price point, additional revenue from enforcement could make up the difference.
An estimated 13.8% of drivers are uninsured according to the most recent numbers from the Insurance Research Council. South Carolina currently imposes fees of as much as $200 for driving while uninsured and $200 more for re-registering.
But the biggest impediment may not be cost, but regulation. While South Carolina and Florida have made moves towards allowing a pilot, the idea of a license plate that is trackable and controllable by a government agency makes a lot of people nervous.
Bannister claims this should be less of a worry because of the way the technology works. As he describes it, the DMV would have only the license plate number; Compliance Innovations would match that license plate with a unique identifier held by the cellular carrier. "The carrier knows nothing about who you are, what your ID is, anything like that," says Bannister.
More of the technical details should become clear when they unveil a working prototype—something they are saving for the August annual meeting of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.