Illustration: Adam Morath , Source: Flickr, Rick... Illustration: Adam Morath , Source: Flickr, Rick

In the not-too-distant future, your choice of license plates could generate some serious cash.

California, land of vanity license plates and stadium-sized advertising billboards, is exploring combining elements of both in a new scheme to use digital license plates that deliver advertising. It’s one state senator’s idea to help plug the state’s $19 billion budget deficit and could, he tells AOL Autos, result in payments to motorists who choose to use the plates.

“We’re looking at all kinds of revenue raising,” said California Senator Curren Price, a Democrat from Los Angeles. “It’s a possibility for motorists to receive payment for carrying the plates.”

The general idea is similar to widely available vanity plates: A motorist would choose to pay extra -- a figure yet undetermined -- to the state department of motor vehicles to get a digital license plate that, when the car is stopped, would flip from a standard plate display to run advertising similar to those delivered through your TV or computer. It could also be used to generate Amber Alerts or traffic information.

Price’s bill, to form a study group to examine the digital strategy, passed the California Senate in a unanimous vote and awaits a floor vote in the legislature. The costs of the study would be paid by the state’s private-sector partners in the project.

But what motorist wants their car to display ads for, say, Viagra or the latest in weight-loss surgery? And what does the California Highway Patrol think of plates that don’t always display a motorist’s license number?

“The DMV would have responsibility [for administering the plates] as they do now with vanity plates currently available to the public,” Price said. “It would be voluntary -- you’d have to opt in to have it. Messages or infomercials would be pre-approved. It’s not going to be like the Wild West of advertising.”

The plates are essentially pre-programmed screens similar to those in elevators or information-access points. When a car is moving, its rear plate would show a pixelated display of the car’s standard license plate, but if the car stops for more than three or four seconds, it would revert to advertising. Price suggests it would also switch to a standard plate if the car came within a certain distance of a police cruiser, a change effected by sensors in the license plate and in the cruiser.

The plate could also be used to display private messages from the driver -- again, we ask is this really a good idea? -- or to show allegiance to a sports team or college alma mater. The technology, Price says, is currently “in development.” Under the bill, the DMV would be required to present its study findings to the state by 2013.

Concerns expressed in the wake of Price’s announcement include the vulnerability of the system to computer hackers who may seek to hijack another’s display or change their own to disguise their identity (to say nothing of the plate’s ability to withstand a rear-end collision). Any system where commission from advertisers is split between the motorist and the state would also come under heavy scrutiny from state, and possibly federal, regulators.

Price said the plates won’t be a distraction to other drivers as the adverts will only roll when the car is at a standstill. He said he has had encouraging discussions with state agencies and the CHP about the system (the CHP says it doesn’t comment on pending legislation), which would be developed in partnership with several small technology start-ups based in Northern California.

“We’re trying to look outside the box in partnership with Silicon Valley, harvesting the entrepreneurial spirit and new, innovative and creative technologies.”

Price says the state of Florida is studying a prototype of a similar system and he has received inquiries about his idea from as far away as England and Australia.

Unfortunately for Price, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently said he would veto the digital-plate bill if it passed the state legislature and landed on his desk. But Price remains positive that his idea will be realized.

“I’m not going to start a tit-for-tat with the governor, but I think he was more focused on the fact that the budget hasn’t been passed. We’ve had positive discussions with those in his office,” said Price.

Russ Radar at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety says the agency has not studied the issue of digital plates but offers his own wry assessment: “There's so much advertising clutter, it's hard to imagine people paying all that much attention. Besides, drivers are likely too busy with cell phone calls and texting to notice more advertising on a license plate.”

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
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Kia Soul
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VW Golf (4-door)

Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
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Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
Dodge Journey
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Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
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