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Louisiana Enters the Era of the Digital Driver's License

About 77,000 Louisiana motorists have downloaded the license app since the statewide launch of LA Wallet in July 2018. While law enforcement accepts the DDL as a form of identity, the retail sector remains wary.

Drivers in Louisiana may want to leave their driver’s license at home, as long as they remember to take along their phone as they head out the door.

The state has recently introduced a digital driver’s license that resides on smartphones, making Louisiana an early adopter of technology that moves one of the most ubiquitous pieces of government documentation and identification from wallets to mobile devices. 

“I’m all for technology,” remarked Rep. Ted James, a state legislator from Baton Rouge, who introduced the bill in 2016 to allow for a digital driver’s license. James’ interest in technology seemed to gel with the state’s commissioner of motor vehicles who was also interested in exploring technology improvements around drivers' licenses.

The bill was passed about two years ago. It then took another year for Envoc, a private software development firm based in Louisiana, to develop the app. The digital license, sometimes referred to as a DDL, officially launched in July 2018.

“The first thing is folks want to be able to use it for everything,” said James. “I still encourage people to have a physical driver’s license, because it’s not mandated that other entities accept it, outside of law enforcement,” he added. The digital driver’s license, which resides on a driver’s smartphone, is acceptable by law enforcement in the state. It has also recently been given the green light by the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which means the “digital credential” — in the parlance of technologists and state officials — is acceptable identification for the purchase of alcohol and tobacco.

“But of course the holy grail is TSA — to be able to use it at the airport,” said Calvin Fabre, founder and president of Envoc. “We are talking with them.” 

Some retailers will recognize and accept the digital driver’s license, but many are still in the dark as to the app’s legitimacy, said James.

“A store may ask that you produce a physical license. So I encourage people to have both,” he added.

To get a digital driver’s license, Louisiana motorists need to first download the free LA Wallet app, which then sets up the process to get their virtual license, which costs $5.99. So far, about 77,000 people have downloaded the app, with about 41,000, or between 2 and 3 percent of the driving population, who have activated the purchase of the license.

“Now, this is before any major marketing,” said Fabre. “We will be starting a big campaign in 2019 to build awareness."

Louisiana seems to be ahead of the curve on a trend toward developing digital drivers’ licenses. Several states are in various stages of development.

Iowa is one of the states developing a DDL. “Most recently, we have exited the planning stage of the project and are excited to now begin undertaking the development stages of the project,” said Mindi Nguyen, project coordinator and liaison for the Iowa mobile drivers license project. "For the current schedule, we’re looking at an anticipated go-live, or public release, in early spring 2020."

Other states like Colorado, Idaho and Maryland, along with the District of Columbia, have piloted digital driver’s license projects, however a statewide rollout of those programs has not yet occurred.

The digital driver’s license in Louisiana has the potential to serve other purposes beyond simply standing in for the physical document, say Envoc officials. The app includes a feature known as VerifyYou, which allows it to verify the validity of another LA Wallet digital license or physical driver’s license. So for example, a bouncer outside a bar could conduct a real-time check of a patron’s digital driver’s license with the DMV.

“The app will also do that with a physical printed license, which means that I can now scan a physical hard license with my app, and that can go back to the DMV, and verify you in real time,” Fabre explained. “So now we’re doing real-time identity verification, using the app, even with the old-school license. “It could also be used to verify someone who shows up at your house to perform a service,” he added.

A next step will be to work out the reciprocity agreements for other states to both develop digital licenses and accept those from Louisiana. Also, the ability to easily verify the validity of a digital driver’s license could make the delivery of age-verified products like alcohol purchases easier.

“We think that this is going to help us pioneer alcohol delivery with Waitr and Uber Eats” said Fabre, calling to mind a common restaurant delivery service in the southeastern U.S. “So imagine you’re ordering a pizza to be delivered to your house, maybe through Domino's or Waitr or Uber Eats. And you want a bottle of wine to go with it.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.