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California lawmakers consider license plates that flash ads

June 28, 2010 | 11:48 am

License
Motorists are used to seeing digital billboards that flash ads. But is the California Legislature's flirtation with license plate ads a bad sign?

That’s what some motorists are saying as a state Assembly committee toys with the idea of issuing digital license plates would turn the backs of cars into miniature billboards.

Lawmakers are being asked to launch a feasibility study to determine if the advertising revenue from millions of electronic license plates would help close the state's $19-billion deficit. In addition to being a moneymaker, the high-tech plates also could be used to streamline automobile registration procedures and to quickly tell motorists about hazardous road conditions and Amber Alerts, officials suggest.

Critics warn, however, that the ads would distract drivers and add to a growing clutter of roadside digital billboards, freeway message boards and other intrusive signage. Some also fear that the computerized equipment that would control the advertising could be hacked and hijacked by vandals intent on posting rogue messages.

Backers of the advertising idea say the digital plates could be programmed to display the ads only after an auto has been stopped for four seconds. The car's license plate number would be visible in small type at the corner of the plate when ads are being displayed, they say. The ads would disappear and the plate  numbers would be shown when the car was moving.

"It does offer some interesting possibilities," said state Sen. Curren Price (D-Inglewood), who introduced Senate Bill 1453, which calls for the study. The measure was passed in late May by a unanimous Senate vote and is scheduled to be taken up by the Assembly’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

Price said he proposed the study after learning of newly emerging technology that can create digital license plates. The review will be conducted by the Department of Motor Vehicles, with the help of other agencies such as the California Highway Patrol. So far, he has heard from several companies that are developing the digital devices, Price said.

One such firm is San Francisco-based Smart Plate Corp., described as a three-person start-up headquartered in a house in a hilly residential neighborhood. Company officials could not be reached for comment, although one of its principals has described the digital plates as similar to personalized license plates that the state sells as a revenue-generator.

In addition to commercial advertising, the plates could also be used for personal statements, such as support for sports teams or colleges, according to company Chief Executive M. Conrad Jordan. Some motorists say there are plenty of questions for the proposed feasibility study to answer. Tech blogs have lit up in recent days with dire warnings from commentators ridiculing the idea.

The plates "will have to be wireless, which will entail a statewide wireless network" that is open to hacking, wrote one. "Imagine all the license plates at once displaying porn or something."

Another person warned that the technology could end up registering the number of miles motorists drive, clearing the way for state officials "to tax you based on when and where you drive." Others have suggested a rear-end collision could wipe out a car's license plate number and expressed alarm that a digital plate on a parked car might drain the vehicle's battery.

One person warned that the technology could be used to flash the word "violation" to police the moment the car's registration expires.

Price said officials will address those issues and create safeguards to protect the digital plates' "integrity" before authorizing the issuance of any new plates. Guidelines for advertising content, the feasibility of do-it-yourself messaging and the possibility of sharing ad revenue with automobile owners will also be studied.

-- Bob Pool

Photo: Techi

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