California Does It Again: License Plate Ads Another Bad Technology Idea

Last Updated Jun 21, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

We've come to expect insanity from California, which spent tens of millions of dollars on tracking sex offenders and gang members with GPS bracelets only to ignore tens of thousands of alerts that they generated. Now politicians there are considering another winner of an idea: electronically-delivered ads on vehicle license plates. It's an ill-conceived process that business managers could use as an example of how not to work.
The device would mimic a standard license plate when the vehicle is in motion but would switch to digital ads or other messages when it is stopped for more than four seconds, whether in traffic or at a red light. The license plate number would remain visible at all times in some section of the screen.
California's political process is capable of some astonishingly bad decisions. Citizens repeatedly elect representatives who cannot cooperate enough to govern. The ballot initiative process allows well-heeled corporations or citizen groups, often without any thought of the logical consequence of their actions, to force the state to jump through damaging and expensive hoops.

The state currently has a $19 billion budget deficit -- about $514 for every resident, which explains why elected officials are desperate not just to cut costs but find new sources of revenue. Unfortunately, desperation often leads to foolish decisions made in haste, and turning license plates into traveling billboards is up there on the ridiculous scale.

The bill would allow the state to research whether the idea has merit, as apparently people didn't necessarily think through the concept first -- the legislative analysis doesn't even have an estimate of how much revenue the state could raise or how much in costs the state might save through electronically providing license plates. Advertisers would contact the division of motor vehicles. (Do they have to take a number and stand in line?)

At first blush, there are some enormous questions that some thought should have raised, particularly as no state has actually done this. California would have to buy, install, monitor, and maintain all those devices. Advertisers will insist on reports to show how often their messages appear, and you need the systems to work. They will need a display, a radio connection to pick up the messages, and the whole thing must be wired into the car, which would provide the power (unless the state plans to swap batteries on a regular basis). Has anyone calculated how much this would cost per car? What ads would likely fetch? How much would it cost to create the electronic and IT infrastructure that could run such a system? Has anyone even though of how many years it would take each car to pay for its own system, let alone throw off free cash?

There are enormous potential freedom of speech issues. California can't legally compel its citizens to advocate for causes or products that they don't support. What are the chances that with a population the size of California, there won't be some combination of ideologue and ad that sets off an ACLU-funded lawsuit? What happens if it happens and the state loses? Would it then be obliged to deactivate advertising?

Drivers have enough distractions on the road as it is. Do you really want them closely reading the license plate ahead of them because an ad snags their eyes? How readable would an e-display be in visual conditions? Could police see them reliably â€" even when a car is stopped and much of the space taken up by an advertisement?

To be fair, the California DMV would have to do some research. But fear not, because the deadline for conclusions is ... January 1, 2013. A year and a half to estimate how much ads might bring and the cost of equipment, if and when it finally gets to market. Presumably the DMV will undertake costs in obtaining the analysis. But there was no opposition to this fishing expedition.

Of course, there's a lesson for business managers in all this. Executives often indulge in daydreams of a white electronic knight riding in to solve some problem or other. Technology isn't a cure-all, and generally requires significant effort, planning, and thought to make it do what you want. But before tearing into enormous formal analysis, some quick calculations and common sense can take you a long way, and maybe spare you from much useless work. And when the wolf is at the door, 18 months of wishful thinking is probably not the best use of resources.

Original car image: Flickr user _rockinfree, CC 2.0. Modifications, Erik Sherman.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.