California lawmakers consider license plates that flash ads

Motorists who already feel bombarded by digital billboards, freeway advertisements and vinyl-wrapped buses say a new proposal to put ads on license plates is a bad sign.

State lawmakers’ flirtation with digital license plates moved another step forward Monday as the Assembly Transportation Committee voted 9-0 in favor of a feasibility study to determine if advertising revenue from millions of digital license placards would help close the state’s $19.1-billion deficit.

Besides bringing in revenue, electronic plates could streamline car registration procedures and quickly notify motorists of hazardous road conditions and AMBER alerts, some officials suggested.

Critics warn that the ads would distract drivers and add to a growing clutter of intrusive signage. Others fear that it would give the government one more way to track the public’s every move and could lead to taxes on miles driven, or instant notifications to authorities when registration expires or insurance lapses. Some also say that the computerized ads could be hacked by vandals intent on posting rogue messages.


Backers of the idea said the digital plates could be programmed to display the ads only after an auto has been stopped for four seconds. The car’s license number would be visible in small letters at the corner of the plate when ads are displayed, they said. The ads would disappear and the plate’s regular numbers would pop up when the car started moving.

“It does offer some interesting possibilities,” said state Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Inglewood), who introduced Senate Bill 1453, which calls for a feasibility study by the Department of Motor Vehicles, California Highway Patrol and other agencies. The Senate passed the measure 25 to 0 in late May.

Price said he proposed the study after learning of emerging technology that can create digital license plates.

One San Francisco-based start-up firm, Smart Plate Corp.,

has compared the digital plates to the personalized license plates that the state sells as a revenue-generator. The company’s chief executive, Michael Jordan, told committee members Monday that besides commercial advertising, the plates may also be used for personal statements such as support for sports teams or colleges.

But tech blogs have lit up in recent days with dire warnings from commentators ridiculing the idea.

The plates “will have to be wireless, which will entail a statewide wireless network” that is open to hacking, wrote one commentator on the Daily Tech website blog. “Imagine all the license plates at once displaying porn or something.” The next commenter joked: “Suddenly I support the idea.”

Others warned that the technology could turn into a Big Brother-ish spy, clearing the way for state officials to issue speeding citations and “tax you based on when and where you drive.”


And from a purely practical standpoint, a rear-end collision could wipe out a car’s license number; a digital plate on a parked car might drain the vehicle’s battery.

Price said these are all issues that officials will address when considering the digital plates — as well as various safeguards to protect the digital plates’ “integrity.” Guidelines for advertising content, the feasibility of do-it-yourself messaging and the possibility of revenue-sharing with automobile owners will also be studied. The report will also examine whether car owners can drop out of the program.

Nonetheless, as the committee was meeting Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office warned that he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. “The legislature needs to focus on passing a budget that lives within our means instead of distracting drivers to raise revenues,” the office said in a statement.

Outside a DMV office in Winnetka, motorists seem split on the digital concept.


“It’s a horrible idea. It will be just another distraction. They can find another way to make up the deficit,” said Misty Madera of West Hills.

But limo driver Farhad Nejadi of Westlake Village liked the idea as he affixed his new “livery” license plate on his black Lincoln. “It could be very elegant. There could be advertising for restaurants and hotels I’m going to. A digital sign could flash the name of the person who is looking for me when I’m picking them up at the airport.”

“I’d go for it,” said Chatsworth resident Carole Stoner. “We definitely have to get more money into the state’s system.”