5 reasons why California's digital license plate ad network will never materialize

By David Weinfeld Comment

Major technology news came out of the state of California on Monday. A sitting U.S. Senator is backing a digital initiative that would impact every driver registered in California. When I first read about it, I legitimately thought it was a ruse; a belated April Fools joke courtesy of the state that appointed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

After reading multiple reports about the proposed technology initiative, I had to succumb to the reality that the state legislature of California wants to launch a license plate advertising network. California proposes to make all of its license plates digital. Companies would then be able to purchase advertising space across the statewide network. Ultimately, the state of California wants to create a digital signage network from the license plates of state-registered automobiles.

The California Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the state to begin researching the use of electronic license plates for vehicles. The move is intended as a moneymaker for a state facing a $19 billion deficit.

The device would mimic a standard license plate when the vehicle is in motion but would switch to digital ads or other messages when it is stopped for more than four seconds, whether in traffic or at a red light. The license plate number would remain visible at all times in some section of the screen.

In emergencies, the plates could be used to broadcast Amber Alerts or traffic information.

The bill’s author, Democratic Sen. Curren Price of Los Angeles, said California would be the first state to implement such technology if the state Department of Motor Vehicles ultimately recommends the widespread use of the plates. He said other states are exploring something similar.

Interested advertisers would contract directly with the DMV, thus opening a new revenue stream for the state, Price said.

It’s safe to say that I think this is a misguided and ill-conceived idea. While there are a myriad of reasons why California’s digital license plate network will never come to pass, here are my top five (in no particular order):

1. What does the California DMV know about advertising?
Apparently, California’s leadership thinks that the DMV, whose locations are the worst places to visit in the entire world, should be in charge of an advertising initiative. At least with the DMV behind the operation, we can be assured that the digital license plates won’t distract drivers by drawing too much of their attention away from the road.

2. Distraction to Drivers
The digital out-of-home media industry is busy fighting claims that digital billboards pose safety risks to drivers. Does the state of California think that digital license plates won’t be attacked in the same way? Driver safety advocacy groups would pounce all over this. Federal agencies would need to get involved. It would be years, if not decades, before a significant rollout would be approved. I struggle to think how digital license plates wouldn’t be distracting to drivers.

3. Software Hackers Changing License Plate Numbers
Any Internet addressable digital display is open to hacking. You can imagine criminals using a software hack to change the license plate number of a stolen vehicle or getaway car.

4. Backlash from California Citizens
(Where’s my money? Why did this ad appear on my plate?)
Can’t you just hear the cries for revenue sharing from California’s citizens? “You’re selling advertising on my vehicle. Where’s my cut?” In addition, how would California ensure that a car wouldn’t display advertising that violates the driver’s personal beliefs?

5. Broken Digital License Plates
Software fails. Digital displays break. The Blue Screen of Death rears its ugly head. California drivers could easily be left with non-functioning license plates. Whose responsibility would it be to have ta digital license plate serviced or replaced? Would a technician show up in a person’s driveway? If a driver’s license plate was malfunctioning, would he be immediately pulled over if spotted by a cop?

There are many technical issues that could arise. While this is true in every digital signage network, technical problems with a digital license plate network would unfairly impact the lives of California citizens.