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California DMV allows digital license plates. Here’s how it works

A person is holding a smartphone, matching a digital car plate on a white Tesla with "TESLA" logo above.
California’s Department of Motor Vehicles was the first in the nation to allow digital license plates, made by Sacramento-area company Reviver. | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Vanity plate? More like “vanity late.” There’s a new way to put personality on your bumper.

Digital license plates now let motorists put custom messages on them—with emojis to boot.

Tech-savvy owners of nearly 29,000 vehicles have digital license plates as of Feb. 1, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. They’re particularly popular with Tesla drivers.

Digital license plates are at the forefront of the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s digital transformation. In recent years, the agency has sought to shed its hidebound reputation and embrace initiatives including digital driver’s licenses, an AI-based document verification process for Real IDs, voice-augmented access to the DMV’s website and AI-based remote proctoring for driver tests.

The department has also been courting vendors and partners to offer new services such as remote driver tests, chatbots and mobile registration services for temporary permits and registration stickers.

The digital plates are manufactured and sold by Reviver, a Sacramento-area company with 61 employees. Only allowed on rear bumpers, each plate costs $599 and features a five-year battery life, weatherproof display, digital registration renewal, Bluetooth and national LTE wireless connectivity and vehicle recovery support. A required service plan costs $35 to $145 per year.

A digital license plate on a Tesla with the message "Got Gas?" followed by a crying laughing emoji.
Reviver's RPlate allows motorists to put emojis on their license plates. | Source: Courtesy Harry Dhaliwal

Neville Boston, Reviver’s chief executive, had the idea for digital plates 15 years ago after hearing a friend’s complaint over having to go to the DMV and wait in line for registration tags.  Boston, whose background was in marketing, immediately began fundraising, developing prototypes and talking to DMV officials. 

In 2013, lawmakers authorized a pilot program to allow the DMV to experiment with alternatives to conventional license plates, stickers, tabs and registration cards. The DMV worked with Reviver and law enforcement agencies to ensure customer information and privacy are protected, according to a spokesperson. 

In 2022, the legislature passed AB 984 to legalize the pilot programs. Not every upgrade approved under the pilot program is high-tech. For instance, the DMV now offers drivers sticker-like front license plates under the same modernization program.

“Non-traditional license plates are just one way the DMV is modernizing and digitizing its services,” the DMV said in a statement. “Californians will have more options when conducting their business with the DMV in a way that works best for them.”

With no competitors, Reviver is “competing with ourselves to launch in all these different states and continually refine and improve the product,” said Edee Gonzalez, the firm’s vice president of marketing.

The plates are only legal for motorists in three states—California, Arizona and Michigan—and for fleets of vehicles in Texas. The company is advocating for adoption in Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Ohio, Maryland and North Carolina.

Gonzalez said the company anticipates Colorado, Illinois and Georgia will allow the plates in the first half of 2024.

Reviver has an app that lets motorists renew their registration. In the future, the company believes the plates could be integrated with parking systems, digital wallets, vehicle safety recalls, toll systems and more.

Theft of standard license plates is a common problem, with criminals often stealing the tin tags to use on other vehicles while engaging in illegal activity. Reviver said if one of its plates is removed from its original vehicle, the digital plate will read “detached” across the bottom, making it clear it has been stolen.

The annual ritual of carefully placing colorful registration stickers on your vehicle license plates may be in the rearview.