Back-seat Driver: Will your car be sporting a computerized license plate?

Every year, the Department of Motor Vehicles mails new registration stickers to California vehicle owners, who then head out to their driveway and put the stickers on their car’s license plate.

It’s an old-school rite. But we live in the digital age. The Legislature has passed a law (Senate Bill 806) giving the DMV the go-ahead to explore the possibility of replacing your car’s old metal license plate with an electronic screen to see if new technology would help the DMV create government efficiencies. Instead of stickers, the DMV might electronically update your car’s computerized ID pad.

The bill, authored by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, authorizes the DMV to set up a pilot program over the next three years.

Hueso was unavailable to talk to The Sacramento Bee this week, but he recently said on his website that the law “will allow business and government to collaborate on new, innovative technologies that have the potential to better serve our consumers and the state ... some of these new technologies have the potential to substantially reduce processing and mailing expenditures for the DMV.”

The bill notably had the support of a San Francisco-based startup tech company called Smart Plate Mobile, which has a patent on a digital electronic license plate, and reportedly would like to set up a working relationship with the DMV to advance its technology. Its lobbyist, Jim Lites, declined comment. The person said to be the head of Smart Plate Mobile, a Bay Area entrepreneur named Michael Jordan, did not return a Bee phone call.

What kind of a pilot project might DMV consider? Which drivers would be involved? Would California drivers ultimately have to pay for computerized tablets on their cars, and how much might that cost? How crash-proof would they be when the eventual rear-end happens? Can drivers’ movements be tracked by the police or others? Could law enforcement flash a message on the license screen, such as: “This car has been reported stolen.”

DMV officials declined Bee requests to talk about their plans, saying in an email “it is too early to comment on what types of methods will be considered. Our intention is to explore emerging technology and create opportunities for product demonstrations. We would consider products that demonstrate potential value to the department and the motoring public.”

The new law limits the number of California vehicles that can participate in a pilot project. Notably, the law also stipulates that a pilot program would be “limited to vehicle owners who have voluntarily chosen to participate.” The idea had sparked concerns among privacy advocates who say electronic license plates are a step toward allowing government agencies, such as police, to monitor where drivers go.

The new law is considerably tamer than one the Legislature rejected in 2010. That one would have allowed advertising on the license plates, like digital billboards.