By on June 14, 2013


Recently, and with great interest, I read Thomas’s article on electronic license plates. For those of you who haven’t read it, and are therefore hopelessly behind the times, a quick summary:

1. The state of South Carolina, noted location of heavily armed backyard cookouts, is reportedly considering a proposal to switch to electronic license plates.

2. The proposal came from a company that no one’s heard of, presumably based in a split-level condominium located very far from South Carolina.

3. The company has not announced where all the screens will come from, though my personal recommendation is unsold inventory of the Barnes & Noble Nook.

4. The proposal hinges on the fact that – while the electronic license plates will cost something like 17 times more than the current, non-electronic ones – they will announce in huge letters if you haven’t paid your registration fees. This will generate revenue by shaming people into paying registration fees.

5. The state has not yet revealed exactly how the license plates will attach to cars, though we can be sure that, whichever method they choose, it will have dangerous unintended consequences.

6. Eventually, the license plates will be hacked, the state will scrap the program, and the governor will flee to South America to visit his mistress.


I, personally, am not in favor of electronic license plates. But it’s not for the reason you think. While many people are angry about the proposal because they fear government tracking (and by the way: nice timing, South Carolina), I don’t mind being tracked by the government. This stems from the fact that, if the government were to track me, they would quickly discover I am an unemployed writer who spends a lot of money on cookies.

Instead, my disdain for the program largely stems from the fact that I am a license plate aficionado. Essentially, this means that every single license plate that has ever graced one of my cars is assembled on a wall in my home that is now highly reflective. If license plates became electronic, I could no longer do this, which means I would have to buy actual posters or something. This would give me less money for cookies.

So electronic license plates are clearly a bad idea. Fortunately, I’ve devised something better to appease the South Carolina state government who, for the first time in history, wants to be on the cutting edge of something. And that something better is: electronic road signs.

Before you dismiss my idea as unreasonable (and by the way, it is unreasonable), hear me out.

Say you’re cruising along at 2am on a highway where the speed limit is 55. It’s a clear night and there aren’t any cars around for miles, so they flip the switch and the speed limit jumps to 65. So you go a little faster, and they flip it back to 55 before rush hour the next morning.

Alternatively, say you’re driving down a curvy stretch of country highway at 10pm and it’s pouring. They flip the switch and the speed limit drops from 55 to 45, which tells you to slow down. All of these numbers, by the way, are in miles per hour, as I wouldn’t want to attempt any further metric conversions.

Of course, carrying this to its logical conclusion, you could really do anything with electronic signs. For instance: you’re driving along on a normal road, going the speed limit, and suddenly an electronic sign flashes ahead of you that says: “SLOW DOWN: CHICKENS IN THE ROAD.” This is how you know you’re in South Carolina.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What’s to prevent the police from just changing the speed limit as you drive by? And the answer is: nothing. This would make driving even more exciting, as you constantly have to be aware of the speed limit. That’s completely different from today, when no one knows the speed limit, meaning they just drive at whatever speed they “feel comfortable.”


Admittedly, some places already have rudimentary electronic signs. In Atlanta, for instance, they have enormous lighted billboards over the highway that read: “DISTANCE TO EXIT 222: 9 MILES. TRAVEL TIME: 9 MINUTES.” When you see these signs, you can be sure of precisely two things: one is that reaching exit 222 will take some amount of time other than nine minutes. And two, exit 222 is somewhere between 10 and 14 miles away. But the signs are there, and when it comes to local government, the effort is what really counts.

Still, these signs don’t control your speed, nor do they inform you of wildlife on the road. That’s a job for the South Carolina state legislature, who can have my tin license plate when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.

@DougDeMuro operates He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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39 Comments on “How About Electronic Road Signs?...”

  • avatar

    The New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway already have exactly what you’re talking about. I designed the structures that hold the video signs and the video speed limit signs.

    • 0 avatar

      VMS – Variable Messaging System.

      Common across the Northeast, not just my beloved Garden State. Delawhere, Murriland, and Virginia have them too., though I think only Jersey and Deliwear (495 Wilmington bypass) use them to actively change speed based on road conditions / state revenue shortfall status.

      Biggest issue are the ginormous bright orange ones they’ve placed over the I-95 at various high traffic points. There will be a message on the VMS, everyone slows to a crawl to read it, perhaps thinking it will inform of an accident or detour, only to be told to ‘Be safe to morons who think riding motorcycles on I-95 is a smart travel option”, or “Buckle Up, Or else Big Brother Will Demand tribute”, or some similar message. Other then the Amber/Silver alerts, I have never seen the VMS boards display anything useful to me driving experience.

      • 0 avatar

        Why is it a bad idea to ride a motorcycle on I-95? I honestly don’t know as I have never been on it (that I can think of..)

        • 0 avatar

          4 Lanes of cars, trucks, buses, and trailers from every far away place moving at 80mph with less then 1 car length between them.

          seen more then a few accidents given the volume of miles i drive. Seen (the aftermath) of a fool on a bike tailing a bus to closely when the bus slammed on his brakes. Motorcycle clubs (gangs?) out of Baltimore weaving thru traffic at 110mph and doing wheelies just for kicks. poor drivers in high volumes at high speeds weaving towards unfamiliar places.

          It’s just stupid to ride a bike on I95. I’ve personally known 2 guys get crippled riding their bike to work on 395 (I95 spur into DC).

  • avatar

    I hear they’re trying to outlaw cookies in some states. What now DeMuro?

  • avatar

    On the other side of the atlantic, we already have this type of sign.

    They are crystal-clear LED panels with speeds varying from 90-110-130 (FR) or 80-100-120-WOT (DE). In france ‘Regulated Speed’ zones have these signs, plus one or more automatic speed traps that will fine you according to the current speed.

    Concerns may arise regarding the fact that, as you said, speed can change at any moment, and thus, make it easy for police to fine you.

    For the already deployed signs (France, Luxembourg, Germany, AFAIK) the police seldom enforces speed in those zones, and you will mostly encounter automatic speed traps linked to the defined speed limit.

    They are mostly used not depending on the road conditions (For rain in france you step down 20 or 10kph, in germany you have “Bei Nasse” signs if applicable) but according to trafic in order to prevent people from packing themselves.

    In france nobody cares about them, in germany, people stick to the speed, and it quite efficient.

    They are also used in the Vallée du rhône region, when air quality is craptastic, to prevent further pollution.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve noticed these in Germany. I was curious of anyone would mention them and how effective they are.

      • 0 avatar

        djsyndrome, redmondjp,

        Studies measuring the effectiveness of variable speed zones have demonstrated more than once that reducing the speed limit as congestion increases can increase the average speed of vehicles traveling through a zone in a given time frame. (Yeah, that may seem counter intuitive, but that’s what the studies revealed.) The zones work exactly as advertised.

        The anecdotal evidence of Billy Bob’s trip home from work yesterday (or everyday) isn’t the standard of measurement. You need to measure the flow of thousands of cars through a defined area, in defined time frames, every day for a period of several months. An average increase of 5 or 7 miles per hour may not seem significant to any one driver, but it makes a huge difference overall, getting several thousand more cars through a given road segment in a given time period.

        Anyone who thinks the variable speed zones are supposed to make seriously overburdened highways magically traffic free during peak commute hours is living in la-la land. The zones are an affordable way to make an incremental improvement, not a magic wand that makes traffic all better, gives you a cookie and some warm milk, then tucks you in while reading you a story.

        • 0 avatar
          slow kills

          The analogy for this is taking a handful of dry rice and pouring it through a funnel. Toss it all at once and it spurts and clogs, whereas a slow pour is smooth and constant and quicker overall.

    • 0 avatar

      We have these in Seattle already. Of course, they don’t always work as advertised.

      • 0 avatar

        ‘Tis true – the Seattle area (where I live) has some of the stupidest drivers that I have ever seen. They will drive as fast as they can, right up to the point that they can’t, regardless of what any electronic sign (or traffic conditions, or the weather) tells them.

        In most cases, the variable speed limit signs (I drive past some daily) are worthless. If they are indicating a slower-than-normal speed (as during rush-hour traffic), one’s actual speed while passing the sign is typically 20mph slower than that already!

        They are useful for indicating which lane is closed ahead, so d-bags can get in the open lane and zip to the very end and cut in front of everybody else at the last second.

        • 0 avatar

          Those “d-bags” (myself included) are doing it correctly. The most efficient way to merge is at “the last second,” i.e., just before the start of the lane closure. Why take one travel lane out of play prematurely? Doing so merely exacerbates the back-up.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember seeing a sign in England that read: “this sign not in use”, so it might not be a good idea to adopt practices from across the pond.

  • avatar

    How about personalized highway signs. Your wife calls you, the system locates you and your phone, she leaves a voicemail, which appears as text on the sign you’re approaching: BOB: PICK UP MILK. AND CUT THE GRASS WHEN YOU GET HOME, YOU LAZY BASTARD. I’M GOING TO STAY WITH MY MOTHER FOR A WHILE.

  • avatar

    South Carolina has electronic signs like the one shown in the blizzard picture. They normally show things like average travel times to “exit 71” for instance. They also use them for amber alerts and to propagate fear of DUI crackdown check points on the weekends.

    I know some parts of Texas have, or did have signs that changed from 55mph in the daytime to 70mph after 9pm. A few were electronic, though most I saw were dual signs, with “night” or some similar designation marked on the higher limit.

  • avatar

    Also, I like the SC jokes you worked in there. Mostly because they are all completely true!

  • avatar

    This is hilarious. What a great way to begin a Friday.

  • avatar

    The electronic signs that I hate are the ones that alert you to a problem up ahead using references that mean nothing to you.

    “Overturned Truck Mile Marker 240 route detour exit 32b”

    By the time you zoom by the sign, assuming a semi didn’t block it from your view in the first place, you’ve only read “overturned truck mile”. You know just enough to know that in a few minutes you will be in a huge traffic jam that you could have avoided but not really.

    As a side note, am I the only one that finds detour features in GPS devices totally unhelpful in real life?

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      The first time I had a GPS device, I took it to Los Angeles. I was going to be spending a week there, and in San Diego, on business. I was returning to LA from San Diego — following my GPS — when it automatically re-routed me to avoid congestion. As I took the alternate route, I was able to glance over to where, until a few minutes earlier, I was going to be. It was gridlocked and I was sailing along at the speed limit.

      So, I was very impressed with the unit’s capabilities . . . a Garmin, by the way. Using the same broadcast technology it would be possible to communicate directly with the car to advise people of all kinds of problems, trigger the automatic re-routing function and changed the displayed speed limit (which turns red if you exceed it).

      Much better than big, expensive signs, IMHO.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Fantastic and hilarious article Doug.

    But coming down to reality, it is another strand in the spider’s web that is slowly trapping us.

  • avatar

    Glad I clicked on this one Doug ! .

    I only wish I had a copy of the photo of an electronic sign reading ” CAUTION ZOMBIES AHEAD ” as by old Hearse was passing ~ apparently kids can re – configure electronic signs with a lap top computer .

    It’s @ home I think .

    As I’m staunchly Conservative (but not whacky) I have mixed thoughts about all this intrusive modern electronic crap .

    In the end , I think if it works now and is cheaper , why mess with it ? .


    • 0 avatar

      I think you’re speaking about this one :

      ADDCO signs hacking was also very popular in 2009, they are mostly portable signs.

      “Preventive” speed traps in france (you see your speed but you aren’t fined) were also hacked a few days ago, story in french :

      (picture in english ;))

  • avatar

    Funny article, but for the record, South Carolina already has electronic, changeable speed limit signs in Greenville County on US 25 between SC 11 and the North Carolina line that change based on weather. I don’t know why they’d bother to warn about chickens with all the deer to worry about.

    Also for the record, the company involved is based in Columbia; I cannot comment on if they’re in a split-level condo or not.

    • 0 avatar

      But you assume they are, right?

      I didn’t know they had electronic changeable speed limit signs in SC. I’ve never seen them in the US. Very interesting!

      • 0 avatar

        Since they’re not at all forthcoming with an actual physical address, I will indeed assume they most likely are.

        The signs first went up in 2010, I think. Here’s a link to info about the project:

        This area is a prime one for heavily armed backyard cookouts, by the way.

  • avatar

    Here in Calgary we have a lot of LED overhead signs for lane directionality. For example, 3 lanes across, during rush hour, the center lane will be thru/left turn (giving two left turn lanes), where as during off peak times it will be thru only, with just the one left turn lane. These actually work really well.

    It used to be a physical sign that was hinged in the middle and flipped over to change the lane. I am sure the LED versions are more reliable.

  • avatar

    “Now, I know what you’re thinking: What’s to prevent the police from just changing the speed limit as you drive by? And the answer is: nothing.”

    No, Doug. The correct answer is “Russian dash cams.”

    • 0 avatar

      . . . coming soon to cars in the U.S.

      I’ve thought of getting my cars so equipped for years now, and the technology has really decreased in cost. Nobody wants to be bothered with being an accident witness these days, and it’s the best way to avoid the he-said/she-said.

  • avatar

    The condition dependent variable speed limit signs are already in use here in Central Florida along I4 in downtown Orlando. Hasn’t seemed to make a bit of difference. Assuming traffic flows allow for it, most people are going at least 10, if not 20, mph faster than the standard 50 mph speed limit. Whenever the speed limit is lowered, it seems traffic congestion inevitably will keep you from hitting even the lowered limit. It, as well as anything else FDOT and FHP attempt, also haven’t helped stem the tide of vehicles, especially large trucks, that lose control and wreck on the infamous (to locals) “Fairbanks curve” whenever it rains.

  • avatar

    What a terrible idea; we need the electricity for EVs instead.

  • avatar

    We have a stop sign near where I live that’s lined in big red flashing lights that you can see for a mile. Not sure why it’s there. the only people that use that road for the most part are driving assorted farm vehicles. Can’t remember the last time two combines mixed it up at that intersection… guess it must be doin’ a good job. It always reminds me that I need to get those Christmas lights down off the house before too long.

  • avatar

    South Carolina is also a state which is pretty aggressive about enforcing tag and insurance requirements.

    I once took a call from a customer who allowed his car insurance to lapse. The county sheriff came to his house one morning, confiscated his plates, and waited around the corner for the guy to leave for work.

    He was then pulled over for no insurance and no plates, arrested, and his car impounded.

    Theoretically this system could be tied to the electronic insurance filing system, so the plates could betray both your registration AND insurance status with no fuss, no muss.

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