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Iowa Digital Driver's License Pilot Begins

The Hawkeye State is on its way to becoming the first to give citizens the option of using a digital driver's license.

The company that makes most of the nation’s driver’s licenses — MorphoTrust — is now piloting the first digital driver’s license in the nation.

About 100 employees at the Iowa Department of Transportation are part of a 90-day pilot to test a mobile app, which MorphoTrust calls an mDL (mobile driver’s license), that may someday replace the plastic card that has served as standard American identification for decades.

The pilot is strictly technical — participants can’t, for example, use their mDL to prove their age when buying liquor. But the test will allow the company to assess the various scenarios that might arise in a state- or nationwide adoption of the technology.

One of the most obvious benefits of a digital driver’s license is that it can be updated instantly — there’s no need for the state to print a new card or for the citizen to buy and wait for a new card. Changing an address or updating the card’s layout when the citizen ages from 20 to 21 can all be accomplished online.

It will also be easier to ensure the authenticity of a digital ID, said Jenny Openshaw, vice president of state and local sales at MorphoTrust. Authentication of physical driver’s licenses is today accomplished visually — someone looks at the card and judges whether it’s real or fake. A store-side app that validates the authenticity of a patron’s card won’t eliminate fraud, but it makes it far more difficult.

A mobile app would also allow states an opportunity to deliver more services and information to citizens through a trusted and official channel.

“It can be a two-way communication between DOT and the customer,” Openshaw said. “So you can push out public service information or announcements. … You can allow them to register and title the car or check drivers’ records. The app could eventually be used to provide all the services that they currently provide through the DMV today through the mobile app.”

When the pilot is finished, Openshaw said, the company will evaluate the data and choose one of a number of possibilities. One possibility, she said, is to launch another pilot with more users. Another possibility is to launch a pilot in which citizens are allowed to download and try the app. Another is a partnership with a private retailer to simulate how transactions might work. The state is also considering the feasibility of using the mDL as an alternative to the temporary paper license issued before the citizen’s permanent card arrives, she said.

“We’re really excited about this technology,” Openshaw said. “I’m at the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Conference here in Iowa, and the pilot has generated a lot of buzz and a lot of interest. We’re gratified to see the very high level of excitement among these administrators for what the technology offers, because I do think it’s going to shift the paradigm of what the driver’s license is and what it's capable of doing.”

The pilot has been going well so far, said Andrea Henry, director of strategic communications for the  Iowa Department of Transportation. And in Iowa there’s no law preventing a mobile driver’s license app from reaching the hands of the public, so this testing could open a lot of new possibilities.

“It’s about offering customers choice and convenience," she said. "Choice in how they get their services from a government agency, and choice in the fact that they can have their driver’s license in a digital format in addition to the plastic card."

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.