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California Digital License Plates May Hit Roadblock

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatens to veto 'distracting' driver bill, says lawmakers need to focus on passing a budget.

A bill that would allow California to research advertisement-enabled digital license plates passed out of the state Assembly Transportation Committee Monday, but may be vetoed if it lands on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk.

"The Legislature needs to focus on passing a budget that lives within our means instead of distracting drivers to raise revenues," Schwarzenegger said in a June 22 written statement from his press office. "This legislation will be vetoed if it reaches my desk."

SB 1453, sponsored by state Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles, would allow, but not require, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to study the technology's functionality, safety and administrative applications. It received unanimous support from the Senate in May and bipartisan support from the Assembly Transportation Committee this week.

The bill comes at a crossroads for California's economy. The state government is again facing a massive $19 billion budget deficit -- one of the worst in its 160-year history -- and was set to miss the Thursday, June 30, deadline to pass a budget. It's being touted as a cost-savings opportunity by Sen. Price, as the DMV could improve vehicle registration efficiencies, but it's unclear in the bill how significant or realistic those savings will be. Those savings could be from annual vehicle registration, which if performed digitally instead of the traditional mailing process, could be a cost saver.

In a rebuttal to Schwarzenegger's statement, Sen. Price's press office issued a statement that laid out the bill's intent: "Revenue from this technology certainly is not offered as a panacea to close our overwhelming $19 billion budget deficit. But if we take the initiative to utilize cutting-edge technology and demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit that has always exemplified California, we could see the creation of thousands of jobs in California as this idea catches fire across the nation."

Like a Computer Screen

The digital plates would look and work like a computer screen that displays a reproduction of a license plate, with the ability to display ads when the vehicle is stopped for four seconds or longer, according to the bill. The state has already identified one company -- San Francisco-based Smart Plate -- that's in the early development stages of producing such plates. The digital plate would access ads from a computing cloud or another wireless network, as opposed to an in-vehicle or on-plate chip.

As pointed out by Assembly Transportation Committee Consultant Howard Posner, drivers wouldn't be forced into having digital license plates, but would be able to opt-in -- though that language isn't explicit in the bill. "You wouldn't get an electronic plate unless you wanted one," Posner said. "This is all in theory -- what they're talking about is the vehicle owner who agrees to take an electronic plate and agrees to allow certain messages to be displayed on it, would be given some sort of financial incentive."

But the bill raises the obvious concern over road safety. California already has laws that prohibit talking or texting on cell phones while driving, and this bill's implications have been described as potentially another driving distraction.

According to the bill, key safety and security areas that should be addressed if a study is done are:

o How would law enforcement identify a vehicle's ownership and status when the license plate is in advertising mode?

o The driver's ability to disable the license plate identifying numbers and letters in an effort to avoid detection during the commission of a crime or while driving through a toll facility.

o The unintentional disabling of the plates' numbers and letters due to malfunction, accident or vandalism.

o Should an electronic plate for some reason remain in the advertising mode

while the vehicle is in motion, it would create a safety hazard by distracting fellow motorists following it.

In addition to the plates' ability to display ads from companies that have entered into contracts with the DMV, they would also deliver emergency alerts such as Amber Alerts and traffic safety updates, according to Price's office.

"State governments are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls, and are actively rethinking the use of existing state assets to create new ongoing revenue opportunities," Sen. Price said in a press release. "This legislation provides a unique opportunity for California to work in partnership with some of the state's most innovative enterprises to rethink how we can use our most basic assets to achieve greater efficiencies and cost savings, while generating new revenues for the state."

The DMV hasn't publically taken a position on the matter and doesn't take stands on pending legislation, a spokesperson said. And the California Highway Patrol, which would be consulted during such a study -- due to traffic safety concerns -- echoed the same sentiment through a spokesperson.

SB 1453 will next be footed to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which will likely hear it in early August, due to a monthlong break, said Assembly Transportation Committee Consultant Howard Posner. If it gets the green light, the bill will go to the Assembly floor for a vote, and if it passes, will go back to the Senate floor for one more vote (due to an amendment that clarifies language requirements for the DMV).

If it chooses to explore the use of digital plates, the DMV would be required to submit a report on its findings to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2013. The private sector would foot the approximately $200,000 to complete the report, the bill says.


Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.