The mundane vehicle license 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, Calif., that has developed technology to swap old-fashioned stamped plates for digital screens.
"This is not about a license plate," said Reviver's chief executive, Neville Boston. "It's about connection. With a digital plate, you can be all connected in just one place."
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.
And an included RFID tag, for the radio frequency identification used to pay automated tolls, means there's no need for a separate E-ZPass transponder.
To make it work, Reviver uses the E Ink technology that's in tablet book readers like the Kindle and Nook. The system produces a bright black-and-white image that Boston likens to that found in a Kindle Paperwhite.
The two-pound unit is able to withstand strong winds and rain, and can operate between minus-40 and 185 degrees F. 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 program. The test will run through this year, with a report due in 2020. State legislation authorizing a pilot program 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 Marty Greenstein, a spokesman for the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
As part of the program, 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 one-half of 1 percent of 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 $699, plus $99 for the first year and $75 a year after that to connect to the system's cellular network. (The fleet version costs $299, plus a $20 monthly fee.) Boston expects the upfront cost for consumers to drop by 30 percent in less than a year, and the company's goal is to eventually get it down to $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 programs 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.
But it's not the only company looking to digitize license plates.
International Proof Systems, a St. Louis start-up, is developing a standard metal plate with an embedded chip that can change color to signify registration status, whether the vehicle has been stolen or any other designation the authorities require. The company has applied for permission to test its design in Delaware and New York.
Compliance Innovations is proposing to digitize only a section of a standard license plate with a 2¾-by-4-inch screen that uses E Ink technology to display letters or codes indicating if the vehicle is stolen, uninsured, unregistered or eligible for handicapped parking. The company, a start-up in South Carolina, is testing its plate privately there and in Pennsylvania and Texas.
Compliance Innovations believes that by allowing the police to easily see if a vehicle is not registered or insured, the rate of noncompliance will drop, lowering insurance premiums while increasing states' registration revenues.
Because most of the plate would remain standard, the digital version could be sold for less than $100, plus a monthly communications fee, said Dick Butcher, the company's chief financial officer.
Butcher said there was another benefit. By replacing only a portion of the plate with a black-and-white screen, he said, "we let states keep their colorful designs."