Could Smartphones Soon Double As Driver’s Licenses?

January 13, 2015

10:22 am

Sometimes it feels like progress in the consumer electronics industry moves at the speed of laziness. Thanks to Apple Pay, and to a (much) lesser extent Google Wallet, carrying credit cards may soon be more trouble than it’s worth, if the latest buzz about the future of mobile payments proves sustainable.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll be throwing out our wallets just yet; the all-important driver’s license is one Every Day Carry item that hasn’t changed all that much in recent years. This might also be about to change, though, and the Iowa Department of Transportation is leading the way.

The Iowa DoT is currently hard at work on a mobile app that could replace licenses entirely. The app would allow drivers to carry around a digital facsimile of their driver’s license within the phone itself, effectively rendering plastic ID cards redundant.

As you can imagine, this is raising all kinds of questions.

Dissenting Opinions

Even though the app reportedly won’t be available until late 2015 or early 2016, dissenting opinions are already beginning to crop up.

Sergeant Scott Bright, of the Iowa State Patrol, questions the usefulness of the app: “From a law enforcement perspective, I really don’t see any advantages,” he says. He points out that traffic stops can quickly go from routine to complicated if a driver is seen rummaging around in their car as an officer approaches. Doing so immediately puts that officer on high alert, and nobody wants “I’m just looking for my phone” to become the next national rallying cry – not so soon after the “I can’t breathe” protests that swept the nation following the Eric Garner shooting last July.

When Is Mobile Convenience Not Convenient?

Anybody who’s tried to use QR codes at, say, an airport during check-in can attest to the fact that physical copies of our most important records are often more convenient and easier to use.

But the questions don’t end there. There are also concerns – big ones – about privacy issues. With trust in law enforcement officials at an all-time low, it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of drivers might be extremely reluctant to hand over their unlocked smartphones to a cop so he can run their license. Drivers already spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what cops get up to after they get back into their patrol cars, personal documents in hand.

Here’s How It Could Work

The only way I can see this working is if the companies behind our favorite mobile operating systems – pretty much just Apple and Google at this point – worked with state governments to implement something like the Medical ID feature already available in Apple’s iOS. Medical ID allows users to build a personal summary of their medical history and emergency contacts that emergency workers can access without actually unlocking that person’s phone. You can build your own Medical ID using Apple’s built-in Healthkit app, and then it becomes available from the Emergency Call section of the lock screen.

Why not do something similar for driver’s licenses? Cops wouldn’t need to handle unlocked smartphones, and we’d get to carry one less card in our wallets. Still, the thought of handing over a phone worth hundreds of dollars – even to a cop – might be a tough sell.

Maybe we could take it one step further and make these digital licenses shareable using AirDrop, Near-Field Communication, or something we haven’t even invented yet.

In any event, the list of questions is long, but the possibilities are extremely exciting. I’m as thrilled as anybody about the prospect of eliminating the wallet entirely. It’s going to be a long journey, but that’s half the fun.


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Daniel Faris lives in Harrisburg, PA. He is a graduate from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and now spends his time blogging about politics.