Digital License Plates Are Here, But Do We Need Them?

It’s a story as old as time: you need to swap between your custom license plates, but you can’t find a screwdriver and you’re already running late for a big meeting at the Business Factory. You called AAA to see if they could come out and do it for you, but as luck would have it something must be wrong with your phone because the line was disconnected as soon as you explained the situation. As if life in the First World couldn’t get any more difficult.

Luckily, a company called Reviver Auto has come up with a thoroughly modern solution to this age old problem. Assuming you live in Arizona, California, and Michigan and are willing to pay $800 USD (plus a small monthly service fee), you can join the Rplate revolution! Less a license plate and more of a “cool-looking, multi-functional digital display and connected vehicle platform”, the Rplate will ensure you never again find yourself stuck on the side of the road with an unfashionable license plate.

What’s that? You’ve had the same license plate for years, possibly decades, and have never given it much thought? Well, in that case the Rplate might be sort of a tough sell. Did we mention that someday you might be able to display the current weather on it while your car is parked? Of course, if you can see the license plate you’re already outside, so…

This all might sound like an out of season April Fool’s joke, but as far as I can tell from reading the Reviver Auto site and watching their promotional videos, this is essentially the value proposition of their line of Rplate digital license plates. There are some admittedly interesting potential extensions of the technology if they can convince other companies and systems to plug into their ecosystem, but given the cost of the Rplate and the few states in which it’s currently legal to use, that seems far from a given at this point.

But of course we’re fans of weird and wonderful technology here at Hackaday, so we should give this device a fair shake. On the surface it might seem to be a solution looking for a problem, but that’s often said of technology ahead of its time. So what exactly is the Rplate, how does it work, and where does it go from here?

Inside the Rplate

Reading the handful of in-depth reviews of the Rplate that are floating around on the Internet, at least one specifically mentioned that Reviver Auto told them they weren’t allowed to open the device to examine its internals. This sounds like a big red flag to us personally, but to give them the benefit of the doubt, they may have been worried about some journalist breaking their demo model Rplate. It doesn’t seem like an Rplate owner has treated the Internet to a teardown yet either, which given the high price of the device and limited userbase, isn’t terribly surprising. All told, details on its internals aren’t easy to come by outside of the official promotional material.

That being said, there’s very little mystery here. You can tell at a glance it’s using a lighted e-ink screen, which is really the only sort of display that would make sense for something that’s going to remain static most of the time. It also keeps the power consumption low; according to Reviver Auto the plate draws around 80 mA when updating the display, and 12 mA when sitting idle.

In terms of connectivity, the only officially acknowledged links to the outside world is the LTE radio and GPS receiver, but WiFi as a backup seems a safe bet. There’s no word on what kind of processor is powering the Rplate, but some basic SoC running Linux wouldn’t be a surprise.

Certainly the biggest part of the Rplate, both literally and figuratively, is the 6 x 12 inch e-ink display. From the promotional materials we can see the resolution looks excellent, but the refresh rate seems relatively low. Though for a license plate, that’s a reasonable trade-off. It’s also worth mentioning that the nature of e-ink means that even if the battery dies, the Rplate is still going to show your license plate number (though without the internal lighting).

The e-ink display is arguably what makes the Rplate possible, but it’s also almost certainly what makes it so expensive. Small e-ink displays have come down in cost thanks to the popularity of digital readers such as the Amazon Kindle, but the prices of anything larger than 6 x 4 or so are astronomical. For example, a teardown of the 13.3″ Paperlike Pro e-ink monitor showed that the cost of the bare display module was $450 alone. So the cost of the Rplate, while unquestionably too high for most people, is likely driven more out of necessity than greed.

Questionable Utility

According to Reviver Auto, the primary function of their digital license plates is to simplify vehicle registration. Rather than going to the DMV to register a car or perform a renewal, Rplate owners can do the whole thing right from an application on their smartphone. This level of interaction between Reviver Auto and the DMV is one of the reasons it has taken so long to get the Rplate on the market, and why it’s currently only available in three states. The question of whether or not the average car owner is willing to pay $800 to avoid the DMV is one we can’t really answer, though it might be more than a little compelling for anyone operating a fleet of vehicles.

In addition to the license plate number, the Rplate can show custom messages. The options are currently very limited as the individual state DMVs must approve images and text which appear on license plates, and the popularity of this feature on the long term is going to depend entirely on whether or not Reviver Auto can get some wiggle room in terms of the content. The selection of stock phrases, which include hits such as “I’d Rather Be Playing Badminton” and “Stay Positive”, isn’t going to keep owners engaged for very long.

More practically, the Rplate is able to track the vehicle’s current location and can notify the user if its moved from where it’s supposed to be. This information can be relayed to law enforcement in the event of the vehicle being stolen, and the Rplate can even display a large “STOLEN” banner. Arguably, this is currently the most useful feature of the Rplate. But again, while it’s clear this could be a compelling feature for fleet vehicles, it’s a harder sell to individuals. The deciding factor here may be if car insurance companies consider the Rplate an anti-theft device and offer a discount when you install one.

The Shape of Things to Come

To even the most technology obsessed, it seems clear that the features currently offered by the Rplate are pretty light considering the upfront cost of the device, mandatory professional installation, and monthly service fee. You also have to dig fairly deep into their website to find out that they currently don’t offer front license plates, so if you live in a state that requires you to have both, you’ll be stuck with your DMV-supplied “old school” license plate on the front.

Overall, the technology as it stands seems like it would be far more appealing to fleet operators, yet the marketing material is clearly aimed at luxury car owners. Reviver Auto obviously believes these are the type of people who would buy what’s ultimately little more than a high-tech vanity plate. They aren’t wrong, of course, but whether that’s enough to sustain the business model has yet to be seen.

But what about the future? Reviver Auto shows off some fascinating possibilities in their promotional videos, and one has to wonder if this is truly a view of what’s to come. Being able to see the charge status of your electric car as you walk up to it, parking validation automatically popping up as the car pulls into a public garage, and yes, we’ll even admit to fantasizing about the possibility of flashing the Wrencher on the rear bumper. You can’t do any of this today with the Rplate because these systems aren’t all tied together, but what about in 10 years? Or 30?

The Rplate probably won’t start the digital license plate revolution, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one eventually. They’ve got an interesting idea on their hands, but the technology to do it justice simply isn’t here yet. It costs too much to build the Rplate and the “connected vehicle platform” mentioned on the Reviver Auto website, a “cloud” that links our vehicles to the world around them, simply doesn’t exist yet. But for better or for worse, it’s coming.

79 thoughts on “Digital License Plates Are Here, But Do We Need Them?

  1. “The question of whether or not the average car owner is willing to pay $800 to avoid the DMV is one we can’t really answer, though it might be more than a little compelling for anyone operating a fleet of vehicles.”

    Considering one time I spent a good portion of the day there, it just might be.

    As for the high cost of bigger E-ink panels, are there any other technologies that might end up cheaper?

    1. Trips to the DMV to renew have been unnecessary for a long time, since you can renew by mail or online. When you purchase a new car, they mail you the plate. When buying a used car, you need to go to the DMV anyway. (and, in California, the plate stays with the car, so there’s no need to obtain a plate by any means, unless a personalized plate is involved.)
      I really don’t see the usefulness of this.

      1. “When you purchase a new car, they mail you the plate”

        Depends on your state.Here in MA you have to go to the DMV when you buy a new or used car (sometimes your INS co will go for you)

          1. Both options in Ohio, unless the title is from out of state where it requires an inspection at the DMV anyway to ensure road legality.

            Dual plate state however, do we pay $1,600? I know we have “disposable income” parts but even those guys would probably rather pay a guy to handle it all for them than this thing.

            Insurance side of me says if you get tapped front/rear — even at 2 MPH — you’re suddenly out deductible or $800 instead of… well, zero, metal plates aren’t easily FUBAR’d and tend to hold up well. No screens to crack or electronics or whatnot

  2. We, in general don’t need them. But a few “paradigm subverters” and “innovators” need them to be adopted, so they can charge $700 apiece for recycled Kindle displays.

    1. And have another data pipeline into people’s lives, ripe for the exploiting. Why the hell does it need GPS and a cellular modem? Super confident that isn’t a convoluted excuse to do some good old-fashioned data-suck. Sure.

  3. Looks fun. We’ve got some funny license plate requirements in the UK that it would be hard to meet for this kind of tech.
    Yellow reflective background for rears and white reflective background for fronts. eINK displays would probably struggle with that.
    Governments around the world might struggle with the fact that you can change your number at will (but that’s the part that appeals to the James Bond wannabe side of me). Even if the system is ‘locked down’ it wouldn’t be long before someone hacked it so they could evade ANR tolls and parking and speeding fines.

    1. There is basically no market for this in the UK anyway, as the licence plate stays the same for the life of the car, never needs renewing and is transferred to a new owner along with the car. I even suspect that in the UK even being parked in a public place with a “false plate” would be an offence.

      1. You can still have a custom number plate, if you pay a few hundred to thousand, depending on how custom. Although yeah it would make much more sense to just unscrew the thing and take it with you.

        I’m pretty sure the Americans have things the same way as us, on this. Except custom plates are very cheap in some states.

      2. UK law is that the vehicle must be displaying a registration when parked on public land.
        Be that the standard VRM yellow/white or the dealer red on white.

        Grey area. Driving from the road into a supermarket car park. It is private land.
        Not an offence to remove your reg plate before passing through the car park ANPR cams.

        With all the ANPR cams the UK has it would be nice if people mis-displaying VRM were getting prosecuted for it.
        Considering it’s also an MOT fail, there are too many people going around with dodgy looking number plates, bad spacing, manipulated letters, and little is being done about it.
        All can be automated.
        Also the new inexcusible trend for tinted plates which cannot be seen at the legal distance for vision in the driving test.
        And people now using number plate flippers and blinds that hide them, as more and more ANPR systems come online.

        SImply should be a 3 if not 6 pointer, and the reg should be taken off them on the second offense if it’s private.
        There is no excuse for it.
        Said as someone with several cars, several private plates and not one illegally displayed.

        1. Dave, not grey area; supermarket & pub carparks are public land & you can get nicked for being drunk in both. if they can nail you for a numberplate as well then they will. & Oh, don’t EVER have a blade in the car because the starting point is mandatory 6 months in Chokey.

    1. I can think of plenty of problems you could solve with a license plate that changed instantly with a smartphone app. I am, however, having a hard time thinking of ways you could use this to solve these problems that don’t call for a lengthy prison term if you get caught.

  4. I struggle to find the application here. Even among the examples listed in the article and shown in the video. Such as displaying the payment status for parking and tolls: That’s already done with conventional license plates, just by optical recognition. Where I live, you don’t get a slip to display on your dashboard anymore. If you pay at the machine, you have to enter your license plate number. The parking wardens drive by and scan the plates of all parked cars. You can even skip the machine, and pay with your phone as well. That way your phone can also remind me how long you’ve paid.
    That last part is another thing I don’t understand about this new concept: For whom is it displaying this information? You can’t see it while driving. You can’t see it after you leave your car. Traffic wardens and toll operators don’t need it: If your toll and parking fee are paid digitally, it’s two machines talking to each other. They don’t need displays!
    And the alerts to other drivers: There’s already an emergency system implemented to push such information to all smartphones in a given area. Don’t need to tailgate the car in front of me to read what it’s saying.

  5. You want to know the problem? Unsafe drivers! The solution? Make that license plate turn colors or flash or something to tell the safe and legal drivers that the vehicle is not enjoying a safe ride. Don’t buzz the driver’s drunken butt, let everyone else on the road know the person can’t keep it in their lane! Other places require new drivers and elderly drivers to display a colored tag so that traffic knows to give them space. I could see this serving that kind of function well.

      1. I don’t really care if one illegally operating motorist hits another. I just want like safety orange to know the SUV hasn’t stayed in its lane the whole trip and maybe red and yellow so I know the driver of the coupe is a teenager not keeping their eyes on the road. It would make my trip safer before I’m right behind them finding out for myself.

        1. “I just want like safety orange to know the SUV hasn’t stayed in its lane the whole trip and maybe red and yellow so I know the driver of the coupe is a teenager not keeping their eyes on the road.”

          How would the license plate know that the lane departure was not a planned movement? or maybe an emergency maneuver to avoid road debris?

          Its funny because there are some countries that require people with learners permits to display some sort of sticker that says as much (i believe that this is a UK thing? not sure though).

          The thing is that your personal preferences for displaying dangerous drivers are not applicable to everyone and include too many edge cases to actually implement. At the point that the car is able to determine that these events are due to bad driving/neglect/carelessness the cars will be able to drive themselves. there are much simpler solutions to your suggested senarios such as giving a specific learners plate to people who are learning to drive or to people who have been convicted of dangerous driving by an authority (because of the edge cases which could trigger such an automatic system)

        2. They’re not a problem if they’re in front of you.

          The number of times I’ve looked in the mirror and seen eyes looking down is scary. Got bumper-tapped by one at a stop light. No damage, but I hate to think what would have happened had it been at one of those “everybody come to a complete stop from 65 mph” traffic jams on the highway.

          News Flash: You’re not as excellent at multi-tasking as you think you are.

    1. Right like why not just plug a traditional display into the license plate lamp socket and have it illuminated, save several hundred dollars. Or just skip this ludicrous VC bait entirely and use a painted metal plate which works fine.

    1. Our USAian ANPR coders are better than yours!

      CSB: We have wireless tolling in my state, but they read plates as a backup in case the tag doesn’t read or the driver doesn’t have a tag. My state’s plates can have the same number but different types (passenger, commercial, bus, hearse, and on and on). Got a toll statement recently billing me by plate on a day I was not on the road (I take the train to work, car’s parked in the train lot all day). The ANPR got the number right, but the class was probably blocked by a license plate frame (illegal, but everyone does it). I could have appealed it, but for $1.75, it wasn’t worth it.

      1. you should have appealed it as you could potentially keep receiving those tolls and you have created a president by paying it, so it might be harder to appeal it in the long term.

  6. Allso illegal in Italy – by the way the only case you request a new pates i only when stolen or the older is ruined or broken due a rear end or the like. In the latter case if you’re lazy you can ask a driving school or an ACI office nearby to handle all the bureaucracy. In the former you have to go to a police station to report the burgle.

  7. yay, another money burning party! lol i cant believe someone gave these people money, all of their associated benifits can pretty much be handled by cars already.

    Car stolen: Onstar has been able to disable and track vehicles for years. Most connected vehicles have tracking ability that cops can tap into if needed, tracking cell modems is not hard.

    Custom messages: will never happen, look at the trouble that states have with custom plate numbers. If they havent learned from people trying to register bad words in mixed numbers and letters, they will sure learn quickly and restrict it to only approved select-able messages.

    They are trying to sell this to luxury car owners but most luxury car owners dont even go to the DMV as they have people to do that for them, or just do it online like everyone else.

    I do have two main questions:

    1: what is the lifespan of these devices?

    2: what are their anti theft features?

  8. I remember reading a proposed idea about this year’s ago. They(or another vendor) wanted it linked to your insurance and if you had none the cat wouldn’t start and/ or it would blink NON INSURED. Another idea they had was that police could send a signal through if to disable your car during pursuit à it’s all busy another example of big brother violating our freedom! The supreme court had ruled many times, the right to travel unencumbered and free, is a RIGHT not to be messed with!

    1. “The supreme court had ruled many times, the right to travel unencumbered and free, is a RIGHT not to be messed with!”

      You can travel free and unencumbered on Shanks’ Mare. Driving on the public roads, as we all learned in Drivers’ Ed, is a privilege, not a right (not sure that I agree with this theory, since it’s my taxes that paid for the roads).

      Also, your freedom to travel unencumbered seems to be under assault by the guardians of law and order. This becomes proportionally more obvious with the melanin content of your skin.

      1. If the legal system was valid… then the law enforcement that pulls people over when the might not even be “reasonably suspicious” is not being reasonably reckless or a threat or disturbing the peace or unsafe… would technically be unlawful due to their kidnapping, hostage taking and illegally restraining.
        https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1201
        https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1203
        https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/part-I/chapter-77

        Now days… we can receive an LRAD or other communications from a remote transmission device to slow down. Total racket of continuing criminal enterprises violating even the U.S. Constitution 13th Amendment and other U.S. Jurisdictions Constitution and Statutes.

        https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiii

        How can this be not Napoleonic Code when there is required a Presumption of Innocence?
        https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/presumption_of_innocence

        Wondering why human trafficking is a big deal in the news? Not just the international trafficking.

        I guess French or whatever gangster is popular and not so ghetto thug and more official looking.

    2. Again, surely the changing number plate is the least essential part of this scenario? Even with getting in the way of people’s control over their property, and pissing off just about the entirety of everybody, they still can’t think of a reason to have E-ink number plates.

      The only use for these is to have a much quicker LCD display (battery life no problem). It needs to be good enough to be indistinguishable from the real thing over any sort of distance. It needs to let you falsify your reg number when you’re parked or on toll roads. And it needs a flimsy legitimate “use” so it can be sold on Ebay stores. Then it’ll be like printing money.

    1. And a nice 4G / GPS board (on a removable module!). Just make sure you find out if there’s a battery on-board these things first. Simple method, stick the thing under a bush for a few days. Probably hasn’t, they probably count on the company’s control over it making the thing worthless for thieves. When it’s actually only useless as a stolen number plate.

  9. I noticed last week in Gothenburg Sweden they’ve replaced some of the static road signs (the big ones with directions, you know that might change once a decade or less frequently) with LED screens. So they now need to highly illuminate these screens 24 hours a day, instead of only at night or even not at all due to their reflectivity. But hey at least now there’s a possibility they can be hacked to display something else :P

  10. This is a nice idea, but there are some issues with it. Firstly in many countries the design of the number plate used consists of a reflective material of a very specific type and reflectivity, this forms a very neat safety feature of the car it’s on, and it’s a mandatory part of any car in those countries (with a few specific exceptions EG classic cars).

    The other issue is abuse, it wouldn’t take much to spoof the appearance of this and put any number on any car and commit crimes that point back to the wrong person, In the UK, getting a number plate printed requires proof of legitimacy to make the plate, and the vendors name and postcode is on the plate so they can be traced too.

    1. By law yes.
      But it’s really really easy to get them printed anyway. They are called “show plates”
      Like a lot of silly laws in the UK and no doubt elsewhere, the only people it really hurts are those trying to abide by the law – making it harder for them.

  11. My dad knew a shady character who had 2 identical cars.
    He put one set of plates on the front of both cars, and the other set on the rear.
    The last time dad saw the guy, he was saying “I got to get to Canada, I got to get to Canada!”.

  12. I can understand the lighted speed limit LED signs (black on white) to change the speed limit as well as the toll signs.
    A plate never changes unless you change the plate. I do agree, it’s a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.

    1. You’re on the money there, the idea has already been raised a couple of years back. The proposal (and only a proposal) was to utilise the license plate for banner type ads while the vehicle is stationary. In return, the vehicle owner would gain a subsidy against the cost of the plates. I don’t know if it gained enough traction to make it viable but I know it floating around the tech media.

  13. Seems like this would only be useful for criminals so they can turn off the plates while doing illegal stuff. Personally I’d just like it to be legal to paint your plates the same color as your car.

  14. the first thing that i thought of is if your registration is due, it could say something like “INVALID” and make it impossible to drive without getting pulled over. honestly this thing pegs my privacy meter and it doesnt look good.

  15. Remember that Scotch-Bright covered plates are becoming mandated! Why? Because the LIDAR speed gun works so well on targets which send light back to the sender. What would we do if cars didn’t have LIDAR enablers attached? Anarchy and Chaos!!

    1. Came here to say the same – the plate stays with the car, licensing is a paper / online exercise to change ownership , pay road tax, insurance, etc.

      There’s exceptions like buying a private/personalised plate but even then you don’t have to go to the DVLA for the physical plate, most auto parts places are licensed to press a plate up for you with proof of ownership

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