Digital number plates are here and they feel like the future

Digital licence plates have been given the green light in the US, and trials are happening in the UK too

Reviver RPlate digital number plate
(Image credit: Reviver)

If you hadn’t heard of digital vehicle registration plates before now, then don’t worry, because they’re new to us too. We might be seeing more of them quite soon though, especially in the US where Ford has just become the first manufacturer to offer them on new cars.

The plates are made by a US company called Reviver. They are legal in all 50 states, plus Canada and Mexico, but are currently only approved for sale on vehicles in Arizona, California and Michigan. In those three states the plates are now available as an optional extra when purchasing a car from 300 Ford dealerships.

But what exactly is a digital licence plate? Those made by Reviver use E Ink technology like that found inside the display of a Kindle e-book reader. This gives the plates a monochrome look and users can pick between light and dark modes, depending on which aesthetic they prefer.

Owners of digital plates can also add a personal message to the bottom of the plate, under the registration itself.

More interesting is how the plates have 5G data and GPS connections. This connects them to a smartphone app, which then alerts the owner if the vehicle is suspected stolen, showing its real-time location and displaying a ‘stolen’ message on the plate itself. They can also show warnings, such as the Amber Alert messages used in the US to inform the public about reports of a missing child.

Also handy is how the registration of the vehicle can be quickly updated using the RPlate app, saving an annual visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles office. In the US, a number plate is registered to the owner of a vehicle, instead of the vehicle itself as they are in the UK. Drivers need to renew their registration every year, and if the owner of a digital plate fails to do so, the plate will show an ‘invalid’ message. Once renewed, the digital display of the plate changes to show it is valid for another year.

Digital plates don’t come cheap. The Reviver RPlate costs $599 (£490) for a battery-powered plate, plus $75 a year for the connected features, or a hardwired version with more functionality is $749 plus $150 installation and $95 a year for the connected service plan. Reviver says the battery of the former should last for five years, and both plates are designed to survive extreme temperatures and tampering by potential thieves.

What about digital plates in the UK?

iPlate digital number plate

(Image credit: iPlate)

Registration plates work differently here, but digital versions could also soon be on the way, with a company called iPlate currently running a public test. Its smart plate also uses an e-ink display, but one that can show colours beyond just black and white. The plate can therefore turn red if the vehicle is reported stolen.

The glass-fronted plates have GPS and connect to a smartphone app where users can connect to the police and other authorities if they suspect their car has been stolen, or if the plate is being tampered with.

Another feature is how, if two iPlate users are involved in a collision, they can swap details within the smartphone app.

iPlate says users will be notified via the app if their car is not insured, and the plate will flag the uninsured status of a vehicle to other road users. The app also lets users share information about their stolen vehicle with the police.

Alistair Charlton

Alistair is a freelance automotive and technology journalist. He has bylines on esteemed sites such as the BBC, Forbes, TechRadar, and of best of all, T3, where he covers topics ranging from classic cars and men's lifestyle, to smart home technology, phones, electric cars, autonomy, Swiss watches, and much more besides. He is an experienced journalist, writing news, features, interviews and product reviews. If that didn't make him busy enough, he is also the co-host of the AutoChat podcast.