‘YOU ROCK!!!’: Digital license plate messages let drivers express themselves

The Arizona Motor Vehicle Division reports about 500 vehicles registered in the state have digital license plates. (Photo courtesy of Reviver)

LOS ANGELES – If you must share your love for Star Wars, your car’s digital license plate can flash the message “Chewy Is My Co-Pilot.”

Want to cheer on Arizona State University? Your new digital license plate can declare “FORKS UP.” And if you’re carjacked, your license plate will prominently state “STOLEN.”

These are among the many message possibilities that can be added as a subscript to digital license plates, which the maker says are legal for everyday drivers only in Arizona, Michigan and, just this month, California.

Digital license plates are pricey compared to the traditional metal plates, but they’re fun, have some practical value and could save motorists from that dreadful annual trek to their state’s department of motor vehicles.

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Drivers with digital plates can just pay their fee and the electronic tag showing the year on their car automatically updates.

“If you could literally change and have a digital display for the plate, you can update it remotely, you wouldn’t have to go into the DMV anymore,” said Neville Boston, co-founder of Reviver, the sole player in the digital plate market at the moment.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month signed a bill making the Golden State the latest to allow digital license plates.

The bill “strikes a necessary balance between innovation and privacy while digitizing the only thing on our cars today that remain antiquated: license plates,” Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, who sponsored the measure, said in a statement.

California’s approval followed Arizona, where there are about 500 digital plates on the road, the Grand Canyon State’s Motor Vehicle Division reports.

Arizona drivers also can add their driver license or state identification card digitally, adding it to their Apple wallet on an iPhone or on an Apple Watch. They can securely present the digital version as valid identification at airport security checkpoints.

Toyota FJ Cruiser shows digital license plate from California with the message LOOKING FOR A TRAIL. (Photo courtesy of Reviver)

“This puts our state at the leading edge of a new technology that offers choice, convenience, privacy and security,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said.

California tested digital license plates four years ago with a pilot program involving 17,000 enrolled drivers, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles reported.

Reviver charges $19.95 a month or $215.40 a year for four years for battery-powered digital plates. A version that’s wired directly to the car is $24.95 a month or $275.40 a year. Customers can screw on their new plates themselves or pay $150 for professional installation.

Boston said the company figures that in an age when cars have so many computer-linked features – from infotainment screens to lane-departure warnings to automated braking – “why do you have a standard piece of metal … on your vehicle? It should be digital.”

Boston also said Reviver takes “safety and security very seriously,” and the company uses bank-level encryption technology to make sure its system can’t be hacked.

However, an ASU professor who raised questions about security in 2019 when Arizona was authorizing digital license plate technology told Cronkite News he still has concerns.

Digital license plates introduce “new avenues” to steal data, “but security may not be a major issue until digital plates achieve widespread adoption – for which, it still seems like there is a long way to go,” said Aviral Shrivastava, professor in the ASU School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence.

Controlled from a driver’s smartphone, digital plates have some practical value besides just displaying messages.

They can flash Amber Alerts to inform other drivers about a missing child and weather warnings. If thieves make off with a car, the plates not only flash STOLEN, they include a tracking device to help lead police locate the vehicle.

In addition, Reviver offers such features as different color backgrounds and banner messages.

Audi shows a digital license plate with the word STOLEN above the numbers. (Photo courtesy of Reviver)

As for personal messages, California is only allowing ones that its DMV approves, just as Arizona’s MVD edits personalized metal plates to weed out profanity, vulgarity and other terms deemed to be in bad taste.

But if you can’t wait to have your own digital message approved, there’s a long list of approved messages from which to choose.

On California’s list, you can celebrate friends with a “Happy Birthday!” banner. There’s messages for a wide range of sports teams, hobbies or other pursuits. Some are more cheeky than others.

Our two favorites: “Tell Your Dog I Said Hi” and “Off To Neverland.” For headbangers, there’s “YOU ROCK !!!”

Boston mentioned the possibility of adding images in the future. He said that having a digital screen makes anything possible as long as it is in line with state regulations and isn’t distracting.

For now, though, it’s the messages that allow motorists can show their creative sides.

“It’s like a bumper sticker without having it take paint off your car,” said Boston, whose own plates currently read “Making Good Happen.”

News Reporter, Los Angeles

Fernanda Galan Martinez expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in art history. Galan has worked for AZ Big Media, The State Press and Downtown Devil.