New California driver’s licenses so complex, manufacturer has struggled to get them right


When the California Department of Motor Vehicles unveiled a newly designed driver’s license last fall -- the first major revision in a decade -- officials touted sophisticated security features that promised to make the cards easier to use and harder to fake.

The cardholder’s signature and birth date would be raised, so they could be felt. Hidden images would be revealed only by ultraviolet light, and a perforated outline of the California brown bear would be visible when a flashlight was pressed against the back of the card.

As it turned out, the enhancements also made the licenses harder to produce. As a result, tens of thousands of motorists have had to wait as long as six weeks, rather than a few days, to receive their cards.


DMV Director George Valverde said the vendor, L-1 Identity Solutions, has struggled with color accuracy, the raised lettering and the positioning of images of California icons, including El Capitan in Yosemite and the Golden Gate Bridge. L-1 was the only bidder on the five-year, $63-million job, Valverde said.

The DMV issues more than 8.25 million driver’s licenses and ID cards annually. Some days the agency strives to distribute as many as 40,000 cards.

But when production on the new cards began, 80% of the cards in some daily batches contained errors. In such cases, Valverde said, the agency would return the entire batch to the vendor. Complicating matters, some days the vendor delivered no cards, and the agency quickly fell behind its usual pace.

“Our expectation is that our vendor will issue us a driver’s license 48 hours after an application is received; that’s the requirement in our contract,” Valverde said. “Needless to say, today we far exceed that time frame.”

The state-of-the-art features have raised the cost of producing each card to $1.31 from 64 cents. “Color seems to be the biggest challenge,” Valverde said.

L-1 Identity Solutions is based in Stamford, Conn. Its secure credentialing division, which holds the contract with California, is in Billerica, Mass. Lisa Cradit, a spokeswoman for L-1, said the company’s policy was not to comment on issues related to customers.


Valverde said turnaround time has been steadily improving. He expects that by the end of the month, applicants will begin receiving cards within two weeks -- more acceptable but still not meeting the contractual requirement.

The good news, Valverde said, is that tampering with or counterfeiting the cards should prove much tougher.

“What I’ve been told by law enforcement is you can determine the value of a driver’s license by what it costs to counterfeit it,” he said. “The cost to counterfeit the old California driver’s license was $100 to $200. We think the cost to produce a new one by counterfeit is going to be astronomical because it’s so difficult to do.”

Customers who have renewed their licenses online or by mail but have not yet received a card may request a temporary document by calling the DMV at (800) 777-0133. For more information, visit