WHAT NEXT

Bonfire of the Vanity Plates

California drivers are among the first in the U.S. to use Rplates, digital license plates whose displays are controlled by a mobile app. Rplates cost $499 to $799, plus a $99 annual subscription.
California drivers are among the first in the U.S. to use Rplates, digital license plates whose displays are controlled by a mobile app. Rplates cost $499 to $799, plus a $99 annual subscription.
Digital license plates may soon offer personalized messages, Amber Alerts, and ads—and fewer trips to the DMV.

The next time you find yourself behind the wheel admiring a clever vanity license plate like “ATTN FWD” while you’re waiting for the traffic in, say, San Francisco’s SoMa district to budge, consider Neville Boston, who has waited 10 years for his lane to start moving.

Boston is the CEO of Reviver Auto, a Silicon Valley startup he cofounded in 2009. Reviver makes the Rplate, a digital license plate whose E-ink display users can toggle, via a mobile app, between white characters on a black background and the inverse. Rplates are in use by drivers in Arizona and California (they were also recently approved for use in Michigan), with basic features that hint at what they might one day do—if state DMVs climb aboard.

For instance, in Arizona, Rplates can display the logos of sports teams, with emblems for favorite causes like breast cancer awareness pending approval. But in the future, Rplates might scroll Amber Alert information, warn of upcoming traffic conditions, or alert parents when their 10th grader has the family car out after 11 p.m. And then there are the “over the air” transactions, as Boston calls them, that eventually could become the Rplate’s most compelling feature. Translation: an end to DMV visits for registrations and renewals.

“When you ask people about their experiences with the DMV,” Boston says, “the response tends to be more than negative—it’s visceral.”

Will that be enough to generate widespread adoption of the Rplate? There are about 280 million registered vehicles in the U.S., and Boston says that nearly 2,000 Rplates are currently in use. The question that dogs his product in media coverage and reader comments on car-focused blogs like The Drive and Jalopnik is this: Will drivers pay a setup fee of up to $799 plus $99 a year for a subscription to attach something that resembles a black-and-white Kindle to their bumpers? Particularly if it’s a Kindle that the DMV and the California Highway Patrol may have electronic access to?

Consider that the early adopters may be neither price nor privacy sensitive. According to Reviver, Tesla owners are the most smitten, with Land Rover drivers in second place. And Tesla owners are cool with their cars continuously reporting their positions back to Elon Musk, so the prospect of being monitored 24-7 is clearly not a deal breaker. As for the Ford and Chevy set, there’s a feature that, while not yet available, could help offset the Rplate’s steep fee: users may eventually be able to rent their mini-billboards to advertisers and display commercial messages, though only while their cars are parked.

And as for letting users aim customized Rplate messages at fellow motorists in real time? Reviver has no current plans to do so. But Boston does allow for the possibility that driverless cars could one day scroll messages like “Turning right. Please cross” to compensate for the absence of driver eye contact and hand gestures, which provide crucial information to other drivers and pedestrians.

Eleven years ago, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Boston, a UC Berkeley graduate born in New York to Guyanese immigrants, watched as the high-flying marketing company he owned went belly-up. He studied the devastated business landscape and identified one sector where spending was largely unaffected: government agencies. Next, he looked for what venture capitalists call pain points. Boston quickly settled on what many people consider one of the most annoying pain points of life in America: their state DMVs.

And the process of vehicle registration isn’t just a headache for car owners. It’s a highly inefficient grind for state governments, too. Just think of the costs involved in printing and mailing out registration stickers each year. Imagine the personnel and real estate expenses state DMVs would avoid if the great majority of their interactions with drivers could be handled over the air rather than in person.

Boston says that the decade-long journey to get the Rplate to the cusp of mainstream adoption was expected. “We came to the [state DMVs] as partners, not as vendors,” he says. “We took the same approach with law enforcement and legislators.” Yet after 10 years of lobbying—strategizing with bureaucrats and schmoozing lawmakers—Reviver’s plates have been approved for use in just three states. In about the same time period, Uber ran roughshod over regulators, and today it operates in all 50 states.

Still, the Rplate has obvious appeal for governments, data miners, advertisers, and law enforcement. Once manufacturing it gets cheap enough, expect states and insurers to incentivize drivers to adopt it. Until then, for drivers it may come down to a single, basic question: How much would they pay for the ultimate vanity plate?

Josh McHugh is the editor in chief of Attention FWD and has written for Outside, Vanity Fair, Forbes, and Wired. He recently ordered a black California Legacy vanity plate but now wishes he could change the lettering on it.