Ein amerikanisches Pkw-Kennzeichen

Upgrade for the Bumper

A car’s rear end makes a statement of local patriotism or affiliation with sports club logos or stickers of former holiday destinations.

And in between, the license plate consisting of letters and numbers stamped onto aluminum sheet dominates the back of a car for over a century. Time for an upgrade!

An analog existence

The license plate, a standardized item required by law, is always a hot topic for anyone who has spent hours waiting for a personalized plate or who has received a penalty notice for speeding in the mail along with the telltale speed camera photo. Even though the vehicle bearing the license plate is changing constantly to become ever more digital, connected and autonomous, a new car purchase always culminates in the analog act of bolting on a metal license plate. What a media contrast!

According to figures from the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), more than 47 million passenger cars are registered in Germany. On top of this come almost 4.5 million motorcycles, 5.8 million commercial vehicles and numerous other small vehicles – all of them with license plates. The proliferation of plates on the roads – normal euro plates, plates with seasonal or historical motifs, temporary plates, export plates or interchangeable plates, green and red plates, special plate for electric vehicles and for diplomats and government agencies – has been as unchecked as the growth of weeds on the roadside. The Federal Ministry of Traffic and Digital Infrastructure now offers an app that clears a path through this diverse license plate culture, which has a long but unspectacular history.

Close up of BMW cars
German license plates from the 1980s, for example, were typically black on white. Copyright: redcharlie on Unsplash.

A cozy history

The story begins in ancient times. Roman vehicles competing in chariot races bore nameplates. In the 17th century horse-drawn carriages in England sported a coat-of-arms on the back. In Germany rowdy cyclists prompted the authorities to introduce license plates for two-wheeled vehicles. With the advent of the automobile age, motor traffic increased dramatically and a uniform solution was needed. The first standardized German license plate appeared in 1906; it consisted of Roman numbers followed by letters and a number. No further innovations occurred until the occupation zone was added in the postwar era. After German reunification, the GDR plate was simply supplanted by the FRG plate. Apart from the introduction of the EU license plate, not much has happened since then.

License plates can do much more

Past innovations have included self-luminous license plates, a plastic alternative and 3D novelty plates. However, a real revolution was nowhere in sight – and for good reason. The Vehicle Registration Law prescribes exactly how license plates are to be configured and attached. Any changes must be confirmed by the German Bundesrat. Despite these hurdles, the 2D barcode found its way onto the German license plate. This paved the way for the use of the KBA’s Internet-based vehicle registration dispensing once and for all with the need of an appointment to register or deregister a vehicle. Starting in 2019, it should be possible to register a new car or transfer registration of a used car online.

In countries such as Peru and Panama and on the Cayman Islands, data on vehicle ownership and model are stored on RFID chips. These chips can be read out or written on by the traffic authorities. Private companies also would have the option of occupying memory on the chip and creating links to digital services. For this to work, however, the infrastructure must include technology allowing the automobile ID to be read out from moving vehicles. This could take place at the drive-in, charging station or car park barrier – allowing the license plate to serve as a digital wallet.

Close up of different license plates
RFID license plates manufactured by Tönnjes for automated traffic and vehicle surveillance - Copyright: Tönnjes

A vision: “license plates to go”

An interconnected digital display would immediately supplant the stamped metal plate and the countless special versions. With this type of license plate drivers identifies themselves by scanning in their fingerprints or driver’s licenses; these biometric scans are transmitted to the DMV database. The driver’s name then appears in a digital display – preferably at the time-tested locations. The car is thereby linked to the driver and not to the owner – identification in real time. This presupposes that the license plate is uncoupled from the automobile. A person with a valid driver’s license is then issued a lifelong license plate. If this person drives off in a rental or car-sharing vehicle, verification takes place using the same procedure or a customer card.

A “license plate to go” – regardless of the vehicle currently in use – is an exciting vision. All stickers and “vignettes” (toll stickers) would be shown in a digital display updated after each official vehicle inspection. At the time of vehicle purchase, the new owner could register the vehicle directly with the DMV by scanning in the registration document and entering the license plate number. If drivers lose their licenses or if their insurance coverage or TÜV approval expires, this will be displayed on the plate in large letters. If a car is stolen, red blinking letters will call attention to this fact – making life very hard for thieves!

World’s first digital license plate

The Rplate developed by the startup Reviver Auto in San Francisco comes very close to this vision. Working together with the state traffic authorities, Reviver has developed several versions of a fully digital license plate. The 12” x 6” display can be attached to the car’s bumper or rear end. The LTE-connected IoT device offers various options for enhanced driver convenience: individual messages can be placed conveniently in the display and new or repeat registration can be checked at the DMV via the app design. Some models come with advanced telematics enabling the owner to determine the location of the car at any time, for example. These options including geofencing functions such as running advertising when the car is parked.

Additional features – e.g. automatic display of nationwide weather warnings and notification of theft or expired registration – are to follow. Paying parking or toll charges via the Rplate is a future option. However, the digital license plate costs considerably more than its classic counterpart: Reviver charges US$ 500 for an annual subscription. Moreover, Rplate still has to prove it can resist hacker attack. If analog criminals are put out of business, digital criminals will replace them. These computer-savvy criminals could manipulate the system to make it display constantly changing license plate numbers unwittingly reminiscent of the revolving license plate used by James Bond. Static and analog crime would be history in any event. The future of automobile license plates is interconnected, intelligent and colorful!

With the motto “Driving Tomorrow,” the IAA 2019 is focused on megatrends such as connected driving. The question of which digital innovations will be introduced this year thus remains an exciting one. Secure your ticket and discover the mobility of tomorrow!