Electronic License Plates Spark Concerns About Big Brother | Edmunds.com
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Electronic License Plates Spark Concerns About Big Brother


Just the Facts:
  • Electronic license plates, which could broadcast sensitive information about the driver, are raising concerns about privacy and the intrusion of Big Brother into the lives of consumers.
  • South Carolina is considering a proposal to switch to electronic license plates, which are capable of displaying messages.
  • Messages could include registration status, insurance compliance, or emergency alerts.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Electronic license plates, which could broadcast sensitive information about the driver, are raising concerns about privacy and the intrusion of Big Brother into the lives of consumers.

The South Carolina legislature is considering a proposal to switch to electronic license plates, which can be changed wirelessly to display a vehicle's current registration status, insurance compliance, or other messages.

What was once just a piece of tin stuck on the back of a car might become the next high-tech automotive gadget, thanks to Compliance Innovations, a South Carolina company that has the electronic plates under development.

They look like ordinary license plates until they're activated, after which they light up, or even flash, with selected messages. According to the company's Web site, those messages could read "Uninsured," "Expired," "Suspended," "Stolen," or even "Amber Alert."

Compliance Innovations claims that "the ability to immediately and visibly revoke a license plate will require owners to comply with insurance and registration laws resulting in decreased financial losses for insurance companies, lower premiums for owners and an increased and equitable revenue collection for government jurisdictions."

The plates are made using e-paper technology, similar to that found in devices like the Amazon Kindle, which enables them to store images for up to ten years without power. When activated by the DMV, the small amount of electricity required is generated either by a transparent solar film that covers the plate or by the vehicle's vibration.

If the concept seems a bit Big Brotherish, Compliance Innovations maintains that vehicle locations could not be tracked without three court orders, one each for the DMV, the cellular carrier through which the messages are broadcast, and Compliance Innovations itself. Under normal circumstances, the system relies on law enforcement or the public seeing the illuminated messages and taking action.

As of now, the electronic plates are estimated to cost state governments about $100 each, compared to $3-$7 for a metal plate. But the company says South Carolina could save up to $150 million per year by eliminating vehicles with no insurance or with expired plates.

The proposal being considered by the South Carolina legislature is in its early stages, and Compliance Innovations still needs to work out a few bugs, like reducing the per-unit cost and reducing the size of their plates so they fit into the standard license-tag space on most cars. But if adopted, a pilot program would be put in place to test out the concept on state-owned vehicles before rolling it out more widely.

Edmunds says: Expect other states to follow South Carolina in considering this high-tech alternative to tracking drivers.

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