South Carolina is considering a proposal, still in its early stages, to switch from metal license plates to new electronic license plates, or e-tags, as a way to improve highway safety.
"It's the first of its kind," says David Findlay, co-founder of Compliance Innovations, the South Carolina company that created the e-tags. "It's not an LCD or an LED. What it's made of is electronic paper. It's a new technology that allows you to hold the image with no power whatsoever for over 10 years. The only time it needs power is when you're changing the status or the image on the plate."
That power comes from the vibrations of your car, and from a transparent film over the tag that collects solar power.
The reason e-tags should improve highway safety is because the tags would be electronically linked to the DMV, so if a driver's license has been suspended or his insurance has lapsed, the DMV would send a signal to the license plate. The word "SUSPENDED" or "UNINSURED" would appear on the license plate.
If your car is stolen, the DMV could make the tag read "STOLEN". The state could also use the tags during Amber Alerts or other emergencies.
"We actually put that wording on the license plate across the top and, depending on how the state wants it, it could be in bright red, and we can actually flash the plate, have it flashing as it goes down the road," says Brian Bannister, co-founder of the company.
Even though the DMV would be able to send a signal to the electronic license plate to change its wording, the agency would not be able to track where you are. "No one entity could actually track an individual vehicle," Bannister says. "It would require three court orders: to the DMV; to us; and the (cellular) carrier themselves to actually be able to locate a vehicle."
At this point, the company is proposing that the state use e-tags as a pilot program with state-owned vehicles. There are still several things that need to be worked out, like reducing the size of the prototype e-tags so they're the same size as current license plates, and bringing down production costs. While a metal license plate costs anywhere from $3 to $7 to make, Findlay says his company is hoping to reduce the cost to make e-tags to under $100.
But the savings to the state could be significant. It's estimated the state loses $150 million a year because of drivers who drive with expired tags or without insurance.
Findlay and Bannister says if the state switches to e-tags and that reduces the number of uninsured drivers, insurance companies would lower their rates.
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