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California's Electronic License Plate Is One of the Worst Ideas Ever

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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2018

It recently came out that the state of California will soon allow motorists the option to buy an electronic license plate. You can see an example of this in the image above, which is a picture I personally took of an electronic license plate I saw in the Los Angeles area. This license plate, like all electronic license plates, is absolutely stupid.

Allow me to provide a little background. California always seems to be on the cutting edge of new technology, likely given the state's status as a hub of high-tech innovation, and so the government in California occasionally adopts new technology before governments elsewhere -- like, for instance, hybrid cars and electric cars. Apparently trying to stay ahead of the curve, they've also adopted electronic license plates.

Here's how these work: you pay $699 to a private company, not the state of California, and they send you an electronic license plate. Then you have to pay someone to install it, meaning this whole thing is probably like $800 or more once it's finally on the back of your car. And I stress the back of your car, because electronic license plates aren't designed to go on the front. So if you get one of these bizarre items, you have the electronic plate on the back, and a regular ol' license plate on the front.

So what exactly is it? Well, it's exactly as it sounds: a license plate, except it's electronic. It looks like an iPad, or a Kindle, and it sits right back behind your car, giving your license plate number. It does every single thing a regular license plate does, except it does it electronically, and it costs $699.

If there's ever been a finer example of the answer to a question no one is asking, I'd like to see it.

In fact, the electronic license plate actually creates considerable problems. One is obvious: you get in a minor fender bender, your bumper cover is damaged, it's already more expensive than it should be -- but now your license plate is damaged, too. Good luck explaining to the insurance company that they have to reimburse you $699 for a new one. Or, how about this one: you sell your car, and the buyer (obviously) does not want the electronic license plate, because n addition to the $699 charge up-front, there's also (of course) a monthly fee. So you remove the plate, which also means uninstalling all the electronic connections to it, and now you have to get new, normal license plates.

Fortunately, the electronic license plate keeps showing your plate number even after you turn off your vehicle, meaning it doesn't turn off when your car turns off -- but, ya know, a regular license plate has that same benefit, for a lot less money. And while one of the benefits of an electronic license plate could be that your personalized or speciality plate can be updated right away, rather than waiting weeks for the DMV to mail it to you, the fact that you still need a "traditional" front plate negates this benefit entirely: even if you are approved for a certain vanity plate, and even if you've paid for it, and even if your electronic plate could update with the new number in a matter of seconds, you have to wait for the front plate to arrive in the mail.

Truthfully, I can't think of a single positive aspect of electronic plates, save for potential vehicle management benefits if you operate a fleet and these plates offer some sort of tracking mechanism, or a features that allows cars to be checked in and checked out of certain areas. Otherwise, it's a $699 iPad stuck to the back of your car that adds to your repair bills -- and does everything a regular license plate does for approximately $698 less. It's the worst license plate-related idea I've ever heard, and I hope it goes away sooner rather than later.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
California's Electronic License Plate Is One of the Worst Ideas Ever - Autotrader