By Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle
After 150 years on the road, license plates are still the same basic slabs of metal.
Now a San Francisco company called Reviver wants to reinvent the plates with an interactive digital display called rPlate that can automatically update DMV registration, display messages and images, and handle vehicle and fleet tracking.
“The license plate is the only aspect of the auto that has not changed since its inception,” said Scot Gensler, Reviver president. “RPlate modernizes and reinvents it for our current century.”
The company has a few dozen test plates on cars and plans to introduce the devices by midyear in California, Florida, Arizona and Texas — states where it has or soon will have regulators’ approval. (The California Legislature approved digital license plates in a 2010 bill.)
At 6-by-12-inches with an antireflective LCD screen that displays license numbers, the rPlate looks like a traditional license plate, albeit somewhat brighter. The only size difference is that it’s almost 1 inch thick.
But when a car is stopped, the rPlate can swing into action, displaying a host of other information. It is Internet-connected and can show Amber alerts and weather warnings, as well as custom messages from the driver, such as “Go Warriors!” or “Happy New Year!” — along with images such as Stephen Curry making a jump shot.
It also can display advertising. While it’s clear that Reviver would be happy to reap revenue that way, it’s less obvious why drivers would want to turn their cars into digital ad showcases. Gensler said Reviver’s initial target market of larger fleets, dealerships and carmakers would like to be able to advertise their own brands. “We’re definitely sensitive to those who don’t want any advertising on the back of their vehicles,” Gensler said. Once it begins marketing to consumers, the company might offer rPlates at lower cost to those who are willing to display ads.
Will some plates flash messages while the car is driving? Gensler said Reviver hasn’t worked out those details, other than that California requires the car to have been stationary for five seconds before the display can change. He said the company is sensitive to the danger of the license plates distracting other drivers.
The plates have a lithium-ion battery that is recharged by the car when it’s in motion. Sensors manage the display screen, dimming it when the car is parked for a while. A future version will use technology that lets rPlate display a constant image without any additional power, so a car could be parked for years and still have its digital plates working, the company said.
For consumers, as well as for fleet managers, the biggest selling point may be automatic vehicle registration renewal, which Gensler believes could be paid through a stored credit card with the push of a button.
“This is one of those products that will likely see quick adoption over the next few years and will become a key aspect of the connected car landscape,” said auto industry analyst Cliff Banks in an email. “As more states begin to approve their use, we see digital license plate usage exploding. The possibilities are numerous, beginning with the immediate benefit of being able to automate the vehicle registration process in the DMV, which we all know is costly and time consuming.”
Cost is something Reviver hasn’t worked out: It doesn’t even know whether the devices will sell for a subscription or one-time fee.
Reviver is introducing the rPlate at the Detroit Auto Show this week. It aspires for the plate to become a platform for developers, so it’s also opening the “rStore,” where third parties can sell rPlate apps to the public. Gensler said the company has applied for more than a dozen patents on its technology, with two granted so far.
Reviver, with 14 employees, is long in the tooth for a startup just coming to market: It started in 2009. It still just has seed funding, although it says it’s close to raising its first substantial round of venture capital. Initial investors include John Thompson, the chairman of Microsoft. “This is my seventh startup, and the only one where we spent four years on legislature lobbying before we could even start building the product,” Gensler said.
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.