May 16 (UPI) -- Traditional metal license plates in the United States are beginning to go the way of leaded gasoline and four-barrel carburetors -- onto the ash heap of history.
Several states have moved toward adopting digital plates, which incorporate all of the unique features one might expect from a smartphone-driven world. The technology started in the San Francisco Bay Area with tech-savvy vehicle owners who want the convenience of over-the-air registration updates, and have since expanded to other locations.
How do they differ from the aluminum tags with which we now drive?
Developers say digital plates utilize "advanced telematics" -- to collect tolls, pay for parking and send out Amber Alerts when a child is abducted. They also help recover stolen vehicles by changing the display to read "Stolen," thereby alerting everyone within eyeshot.
There are other, more personalized features -- like touting a favorite sports team or displaying a special message. The plates "communicate" on mobile cellular networks.
The plates are grayscale and use similar technology as an e-reading tablet. Developers say that way, the displays don't use battery power unless they are changing what's on the screen. Other than a battery, they can be powered through a line into a vehicle's electronic system. The plates even can broadcast diagnostic information, especially for electric vehicles that don't have standard ports.
"Everything on a car has changed except the license plate," Reviver co-founder Neville Boston said. "We think we're helping to solve what is a problem."
Another difference from traditional plates is the cost -- the digital versions are expensive. At least initially, it costs drivers several hundred dollars to make the upgrade, plus a monthly service fee of about $7. But like most new technologies, experts say, the cost should go down the more they are adopted.
Boston said he came up with the concept a decade ago, but it took years to develop. Right now, digital plates are legal in three states -- California, Michigan and Arizona -- and Boston said his company is working with a half-dozen other states.
California already has started using digital plates, and they will be available in Arizona next month. Lawmakers in Georgia and Illinois are considering a move to digital plates, and Florida and Washington state have commissioned studies on them.
While the United States' most populated state already has introduced the advanced tags, the state with the next highest population has not. Earlier this year, Texas Rep. Chris Paddie filed House Bill 1711, which seeks to introduce digital plates there.
"This is about giving consumers more opportunity and flexibility, so it adds some features that I think will not only be beneficial to consumers, but would be beneficial to law enforcement, as well," Paddie said.
Ordinary drivers in Texas, however, won't be using them for at least a while. This week, the Texas Senate Transportation Committee allowed digital plates only for business fleets. The Texas Department of Public Safety ultimately has the final say whether the tags become legal for all drivers, to ensure law enforcement equipment can read them.
So far, the Dallas and Houston police departments and Texas Sheriff's Association have not taken a position on the new plates.
Though Reviver says they're secure, there are privacy concerns about "smart" plates that transmit over the air and store personal data.
"Your locational history has the potential to reveal a lot more than ... where you happen to be at a particular moment in time," Stephanie Lacambra, a criminal defense attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It can reveal your associations, who you speak with, where you go to work, where you live.
"It's still not clear where all this information is going, how long it's stored or who has access to it."
Said Boston: "Your data is your data. You have complete control over your information. We've made sure that these plates are extremely secure."
Experts like Boston say digital plates can produce more revenue for governments than the traditional versions. While most of the additional price goes to the plate manufacturer, Boston said he expects governments will increase their revenues through some of the charges associated with using the new technology.
The plates also can advertise corporate messages when the vehicle is parked, which offers drivers a potential revenue stream.
"This is a technology that's needed," said Ashraf Gaffar, an assistant professor of engineering at Arizona State University. A specialist in artificial intelligence, Gaffar said he expects the new tags will be widely adopted.