Boring, normal, same ol’ license plates are making a tech splash as of late! At a time when the world is embracing the “Internet of Things,” with “dumb” appliances getting smart, it’s great to see the un-exciting vehicle license plate stepping into the tech limelight. Appliances, buildings, vending machines, tractors and more are getting “smart” by becoming connected to the Internet and having a computer chip, sensor and an IP address attached. However, the license plate never got its 2.0 day in history; it has stepped into the spotlight all by itself without any modifications, update or upgrades.
To achieve this, license plates found an ally in big data. Since Massachusetts became the first state to issue its own required license plate, license plates have spread everywhere. A license plate was issued to one Frederick Tudor back in 1903 (license plate No. 1 – which still remains active) with every state in the Union following suit, with more than half asking for two plates per car.
With that law, Massachusetts not only manufactured the first porcelain-covered, iron-made license plate, but also created its second invention: vehicle registration logs. For more than 111 years, we have been logging owner and vehicle data on those logs in separate files everywhere; but, with sophisticated networks of computers and the World Wide Web, big data collection is now extremely affordable. The data gathered from these files is being turned into useable products and services for businesses, police surveillance, IRS and even the auto parts cataloging!
At one end of the spectrum there is controversy, as license plates and registration log-coupled surveillance cameras and scan technology everywhere are creating location-based identification systems for vehicles and their owners that are being scrutinized by the likes of the ACLU and Homeland Security.
In our current hyper-sensitive, post-Snowden privacy watch, many are questioning these practices while hordes of marketers are in a mad dash to accumulate this location-rich data and sell it to others so they can easily target products and services to us all. As stated by Jennifer Lynch, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a recent article in The Washington Post, “When all that data is compiled and aggregated, you can track somebody as they’re going through their life.” Tracking and studying our daily routines, coupled with our smartphones’ location data, credit card use and Facebook postings, can give the holders of that data an Orwellian insight into our behaviors and patterns never before thought possible. And what’s most interesting is that we are either clueless or willingly giving it all away.
Luckily for us in the auto parts industry, we can give Big Brother a small hall pass and thank big data for bringing us a solution to an age-old problem: Year, make and model, please? Since I was 11 years old, I worked behind a parts counter at my uncle’s dealership in Puerto Rico. Back then I learned that many parts customers don’t really know the car they own — countermen everywhere have heard many a customers utter those dreaded words: “I can’t recall the year on my car, but aren’t they all the same?”
OE dealers tackled this problem early on by creating databases with the VIN number, but only for the vehicles they made; not a ton of help for the aftermarket. Soon after, electronic auto parts catalog data providers started offering accumulated VIN data for several vehicle manufacturers and identifying all vehicle brands for parts look up got a lot more precise. The problem was that no one could remember a lengthy string of 17 digits and letters to ID their cars if their life depended on it; not to mention what a drag it is to key punch VIN numbers into any computer. There had to be a better way!
Enter the new functionality of “plate to VIN” data lookups. Just this past February, the Automotive Distribution Network introduced this feature to its WebShop e-Commerce platform. The product takes vehicle registration data collected by Polk and decodes it to return specific Year/Make/Model/Engine info and jumps the customer directly to the Product Category selection view as published by WHI Solutions. As stated in the Network’s press release: “(this new functionality) not only saves a few mouse clicks but also reduces lookup errors.”
The technology works like magic. Our customers are embracing this functionality swiftly. They love the reaction they get from their customers when they look like David Copperfield or Chris Angel by gleaning the specifics of their vehicle information just from the plate. A very surprising fact that adds usability to the new functionality is that customers everywhere seem to know their plate number by heart; I never bothered to commit mine to memory, but apparently most customers do. Technological advances for the sake of technology usually doesn’t mean much, but tech advances for the sake of making us look good and empowering counterpros everywhere to look like magicians, now that’s the stuff of wonder! Can I get an Abracadabra for the other side of the counter please?