Monday, June 21, 2010

California considers digital, ad-bearing license plates

Even though I don't live in California, I'm not sure how I feel about this:
The California Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the state to begin researching the use of electronic license plates for vehicles. The move is intended as a moneymaker for a state facing a $19 billion deficit.

The device would mimic a standard license plate when the vehicle is in motion but would switch to digital ads or other messages when it is stopped for more than four seconds, whether in traffic or at a red light. The license plate number would remain visible at all times in some section of the screen.

In emergencies, the plates could be used to broadcast Amber Alerts or traffic information.

On one hand, this is a fascinating concept. It's certainly an inventive way to generate revenue. On its face, it seems perfectly logical. And it's rather amazing that technology has advanced to the point that electronic plates such as these can be mass-manufactured cheaply enough to make this idea feasible (last I checked, California had well over thirty million vehicles registered in that state).

On the other hand, this concept brings up a lot of questions.

Will paid advertising be limited to businesses, or will political, religious or other advocacy groups be allowed to buy advertising as well? What if the owner of the car objects to the message that his or her own vehicle is advertising - i.e. a business they don't like or an organization or politician they don't support - via these plates? Does the vehicle owner have any say as to the content of these messages, or, since the plate itself is technically the property of the state, is it just a trade-off the vehicle owner has to accept for registering his car in the state of California?

What if these electronic plates malfunction and start flashing ads while the vehicle is in motion, thereby creating a distraction to other drivers? What if the electronic plate stops functioning entirely and the vehicle's license number becomes invisible (i.e. to law enforcement, electronic toll collection cameras, etc.)?

Will every motorist be required to have one of these plates, or will there be an option for them to "out out" and choose standard metal plates instead? If so, how many vehicle owners can opt out before this idea becomes financially unworkable? What if Californians opposed to these plates start registering their car out-of-state (illegal though that might be) and deprive the state of much-needed revenue?

The article says that the plates will be activated if the vehicle is stopped for more than four seconds. As any driver knows, standstills for that duration are commonplace during rush hour or at bottlenecks caused by construction, accidents and the like. I can just imagine a bunch of electronic plates flashing on and off multiple times as congested traffic continually stops and starts, creating an ever-blinking distraction for drivers at the time they need to be the most vigilant.

How will these plates be powered? Will they have their own power source, or will they be hooked to the vehicles' battery or alternator? If so, does that mean that motorists will be providing a subsidy, albeit minor, to the state and the plate advertisers every time they fill up their tank, as the gas they buy will end up powering the plates?

And finally, is it just me, or is there something vaguely creepy about this idea?

I don't know if these or other issues pertaining to these plates have been considered yet - the article doesn't go into such specifics - or if those details will be worked out as the concept is further developed. Given the radical nature of this concept, California - and any other state that pursues this idea - is going to have to be able to answer a lot of questions before they get motorists to sign on.

This will be a fun story to follow.

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