Digital number plates: are they a privacy concern and will they come to the UK?

Trials begin in California on the plates that could help police track stolen vehicles

Reviver Auto
Drivers will need to pay $699 (£525) for the plate and $7 (£5) per month thereafter
(Image credit: Reviver Auto)

California has become the first US state to roll out trials of a new digital number plate system that aims to help police track stolen cars and improve the vehicle registration process.

The plates, which have been developed by San Francisco tech firm Reviver Auto, will go on sale in dealerships for $699 (£525) if the trials are successful, The Sacramento Bee says. There will also be a monthly fee of $7 (£5) to operate the device.

Sacramento became the first city to test the number plates, the newspaper says, when the local council ordered 24 examples to trial on “its in-house vehicle fleet”.

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According to Fortune, the system uses technology similar to Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, where users can choose between either a light or dark background.

When the vehicle is moving, the digital plate displays the registration number of the vehicle just like a conventional plate, the website says. But when the car comes to a halt, the number shrinks and moves to the top right corner of the display. Users can also customise the display with a personal image or message that will show when the car is stationary.

Digital Trends says the digital number plate could streamline the annual vehicle registration process in the state.

As it stands, car owners in California are required to register their cars on a yearly basis and display a small sticker on their number plates once they have paid, the tech site says.

The digital plate can be updated automatically, meaning vehicle owners don’t need to place the mandatory sticker on their car to show it has been registered.

Are the plates a privacy concern?

They certainly are. This is because the device’s built-in GPS chip makes it easier for the authorities to track a person’s car - or number plate - if it is stolen.

Although the ability to track a vehicle wirelessly “may be ideal for fleet owners”, The Verge says, “individual drivers may balk at the idea”.

Some are concerned the plates could be vulnerable to hackers, but the Daily Mail says Reviver Auto has fitted the futuristic registration device with cyber security systems that are similar to those used for online banking.

The newspaper adds that a future update will allow the number plates to “display targeted advertising on parked vehicles”, although this is “pending approval from the California DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles]”.

Will they come to the UK?

Not in the near future, it seems. That’s according to a spokesperson for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), who told Autocar that there are no plans to introduce the system into the UK any time soon, as the present system “works effectively”.

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