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California to Pilot Electronic License Plates

Senate Bill 806 was recently signed by Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, enabling the DMV to experiment with electronic license plates.

Senate Bill 806 was signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown last week, authorizing the state DMV to establish an electronic license plate pilot program.

Although the law does not include the requirement of an electronic solution, previous versions of the bill include language about partnering with the private sector on electronic alternatives for payment and processing programs regarding vehicle registration and titling. The pilot needs to be established by Jan. 1, 2017.
According to background information provided by the Senate floor bill analysis, the alternatives would lower the cost of DMV vehicle registration services, particularly DMV processing and mailing expenditures. Each year, there are more than 10 million renewals. With this pilot project, the DMV can test a digital electronic plate, allowing the agency to electronically issue updated stickers and registration cards.

“The DMV may choose to work with a product that already exists on the market,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the bill’s author. “The technologies used will be based on the DMV request for proposal process. This process will allow the DMV to seek out any and all products in the marketplace that may generate efficiencies within the vehicle registration process.”

It will cost less than $50,000 for the DMV to administer the pilot program and complete the evaluation report, according to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The pilot program is limited to no more than .5 percent of registered vehicles for the purpose of road testing and evaluation, and restricted to vehicle owners who have voluntarily chosen to participate.

Smart Plate Inc., has a patent on digital electronic license plates and has offered to make its product available to the DMV. The technology consists generally of a computer screen that takes on the appearance of a standard California license plate.

The device will be limited to data necessary to display evidence of registration compliance. However, it is within technological capability to post other text, such as Amber Alerts or “stolen” if the vehicle has been illegally taken from its owner.

The DMV will be responsible for sharing the results of the pilot program with the California Legislature no later than July 1, 2018. The report will include information about whether the devices evaluated in the pilot program have the ability to transmit and retain information relating to the movement, location or use of a vehicle. If a product contains that feature, the report shall also note if the technology includes any security features to protect against unauthorized access to that information.

Hueso added that SB 806 contains parameters to ensure personal information is protected and outlines the following provisions:

  • specifies that the pilot is voluntary;
  • prohibits DMV from receiving or retaining GPS data; and
  • the DMV must report to the Legislature on all tested products and their features, specifically those that include the ability for GPS tracking.
The report must also contain DMV recommendations for how any personal information will be managed and maintained.

Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a public interest civil liberties agency that works on free speech, privacy and intellectual property issues, said his organization and others like it are concerned about the potential for the technology to be interfered with by a third party.  He added that it wouldn’t be surprising if hackers signed up for the pilot to see what they could do to their own license plates.

“California sometimes prides itself as being a leader on technology and privacy,” Tien said. “But to do that, the state has to pay attention to technology procurement from a privacy and security perspective in a systematic way, and not just react to headlines or privacy advocates. Schools, cities, police, transit — everyone is being sold all sorts of shiny new devices. Let's make sure that at least all of the government purchases of or requirements for new technologies are done with privacy and security in mind from the beginning.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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