Is it Time for Electronic License Plates?

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Today’s drivers are behind the wheel of some of the most advanced vehicles ever made. So why do we still use a century-old design for license plates?

Vancouver’s EVI Management ( has a daunting challenge on its hands. If successful, the way we drive in Canada will change forever.

The concept is a simple one. Design a universal license plate that is accurately identified from a distance. Then make sure it stays on the correct vehicle by adding security features that cause it to break apart on removal.

Hills Numberplates, Britain’s oldest and largest manufacturer of license plates, took up these challenges and began building prototype e-Plates in 2004.

The alphanumeric characters on a standard license plate can be read by anyone with average vision at a distance of 30 metres.

The e-Plate contains an embedded radio frequency identification device that is programmed with those same characters, then encrypted and permanently locked to prevent unauthorized access or modification.

Roadside readers located at bridges, tunnels and intersections access the code from a distance of 100 metres, regardless of line of sight, congestion or the velocity of the vehicle. Portable readers alert police officers to suspect vehicles in their proximity, whether on the move or stationary.

“When you consider the complexity of a modern automobile, it’s remarkable that we still rely on casual observation to identify one vehicle from another”, says Michael Wolf, director at EVI.

Police estimate 33,000 plates were stolen in the UK during 2004, with many more thefts going unreported. Some of those stolen plates disguised vehicles that were later used in serious crimes.

A new standard for theft resistant plates was officially launched by Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Britain's Minister of State for Transport, and the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency on May 31, 2006.

License plates meet the standard either if they cannot be removed from the car within three minutes, or if they cannot be reused upon removal.

Easily installed by the motorist, the e-Plate meets this standard by ultimately breaking into five pieces on removal, effectively eliminating unauthorized or fraudulent use on another vehicle.

“Our operating model is to provide aggregate data on vehicle traffic to all levels of government as it concerns their respective mandates,” says Wolf.

“Roadside readers are supplied at a ratio of one per thousand vehicles, and every police vehicle is equipped with a portable reader.”

Data collected is limited to the event of an e-Plate passing by a reader at a time of day. The characters on the face of current license plates already identify the class of vehicle, whether car, truck, motorcycle or trailer.

City traffic engineers accessing aggregate data will determine the exact number and nature of vehicles entering a downtown core in real time.

Transit agencies will identify routine traffic patterns that can support new bus routes, accurately matching commuter departure times and destinations.

Health departments responsible for monitoring disease outbreaks will identify epicenters of declines in daily commuter traffic and their subsequent recovery in real time.

Motorists will benefit from software that determines the best time of day to run errands and avoid congestion, or access their personal travel log from a secure web page.

Police rely on eyewitness reports and traffic cameras to identify a suspect vehicle that has fled the scene of a crime.

Those reports include all or part of a license plate number, which enables law enforcement agencies to access ownership data associated with the plate.

When a vehicle equipped with an electronic plate is used in the execution of a crime, it leaves a digital record as it passes readers located at primary intersections and bridges.

Criminal activity generally requires the use of a licensed motor vehicle. It is hard to imagine drug traffickers and gangsters walking to work, or anyone other than a bicycle thief fleeing the scene on a bicycle.

Police officers assisted by portable readers can locate and converge on a stolen or suspect vehicle while the driver is still behind the wheel, or follow from a safe distance until the vehicle stops.

At our borders, a vehicle registered to a person of interest is identified while en route to even the most remote crossings. Real-time alerts will give our officers advance warning and an added level of security.

Border security is further enhanced when secure license plates belonging to one vehicle cannot be swapped with those belonging to another.

Organized criminals committed to harming society for their own benefit will find that the open road offers no refuge.

Is it time for electronic license plates?

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Michael Wolf
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