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December 2015

As the driver’s license evolves toward a mobile platform, what will it mean for DMVs and consumers?

Stepping up to the rental car counter, you realize your wallet is nestled safely in a drawer at home. Time to groan at your forgetfulness and check the bus schedules? Not when mobile driver’s licenses become mainstream.

With these licenses, all you need is a smartphone, which can be held up to the desk agent for proof of identity or license restrictions. You may also employ a digital payment app, such as Apple Pay, giving you the ability to toggle from your mobile license to your credit card, completing the entire transaction with your mobile device. That wallet can stay where it is, perhaps permanently.

Although the scenario might sound futuristic right now, this shift is likely to come long before flying cars and apartment buildings on Mars. With mobile driver’s licenses—also called mDLs—the future is coming up fast.

Mobile Possibilities

Mobile driver’s licenses won’t simply be scanned copies of existing licenses, with those images placed on smartphone apps. Designed by many of AAMVA’s technology vendors, the mDLs will have multiple security layers and features that allow for less fraud and more authentication.

Although they initially will resemble printed driver’s licenses, the ability to update them remotely and provide links to DMV services will set the mDLs apart. Right now, the technology is in an initial stage, but it’s sparking plenty of conversation about connecting licenses to other applications like law enforcement functions or Health and Human Services features.

Most likely, the possibilities will keep growing as the technology progresses, says Geoff Slagle, director of identity management at AAMVA. “The potential for this technology is huge,” he says. “This wouldn’t be like a printed driver’s license; it would have functionality that benefits numerous agencies, as well as the commercial sector like banks and retailers. This really is the evolution of the driver’s license.”

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A pilot program to test the functionality of a mobile driver’s license (mDL) is underway in Iowa. A feature of the license pictured above is that the head moves back and forth. Additionally, mDL users, currently just Iowa DOT employees, can simply swipe to move seamlessly from the “front” to the “back” of the license.

Pilot Phase

Currently, there’s only one pilot program in progress, in Iowa, with its Department of Transportation employees as the first participants. Delaware is planning a pilot. These tests will be hugely helpful for determining how the mDLs work, even if they’re not being utilized in real-world scenarios, such as during traffic stops or at convenience stores, just yet.

Still, these first steps are crucial for pushing the technology forward, believes Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division for the Iowa Department of Transportation. “We’re baby-stepping into it right now,” he says. “We know that we’ll have to figure things out along the way and that we have a very clear long-term goal, but to start, we’re just getting the basics down.”

Iowa decided to launch the pilot after conversations about enhancing customer experiences. Lowe, who uses digital wallet apps to pay for everything from major purchases to daily coffee, and appreciates mobile boarding passes, felt that the transition to mDLs was part of a cultural shift toward mobile usage. After speaking with the governor’s office and getting an enthusiastic approval, the department started a 90-day pilot in late August with 100 employees.

“We felt a sense of urgency about wanting to make a commitment to this based on what we see happening with mobile devices in general,” Lowe says.

Those in the pilot have been testing the functions, such as changing an address through the app. The department plans to collect the data and user experiences to determine the next step.

The results of that pilot can very likely drive tests in other states as well, says Jenny Openshaw, vice president of state and local sales at MorphoTrust. As each state works to refine its mDL, she believes there will be a tipping point where momentum will occur for both consumers and DMVs.

“No one knows how fast this will go, but we have indicators that it could grow exponentially,” she says, adding that the evolution of digital wallet apps has already allowed people to feel comfortable with using a smartphone in lieu of debit and credit cards and boarding passes. “As people depend more and more on their mobile apps, we have the opportunity to keep pace with mDLs that are loaded with functionality.”

Major Benefits

As part of the pilot projects, vendors and DMVs are determining the best uses for mDLs, and it seems that the possibilities are limitless.

Because the camera or fingerprint reader on a smartphone could be used for biometric controls, a user can prove his or her identity to the DMV instantly, which means no office visits for changing an address, updating donor or veteran status, or even renewing a license.

The DMV would also be able to push out updates and notifications to users, and make changes when needed. For example, Openshaw points out that teenagers who have graduated licenses need to stop into an office annually to get a new license with fewer restrictions. But with an mDL, the agency can simply change the license automatically on the driver’s birthday.

Another option might be to have a different layout or color for licenses held by those under 21 years old. When someone hits that age at midnight, the change would appear instantly, making it easier for proof-of-age situations. Similarly, licenses can be revoked or suspended remotely. That would eliminate the need for those with violations to come into an office to surrender a license.

Another advantage is that DMVs can roll out the technology in a way that’s similar to Iowa’s efforts—with small, targeted pilots that let administrators and employees explore the technology and functionality before sharing it with the public, notes Steve Purdy, business development director of government affairs at Gemalto.

“Absolutely, people can take their time and get an understanding of this so that when it’s ready to go mainstream they can feel confident about what mDLs involve,” he says. “Think of this as a new way to communicate with citizens. You’ll be adapting to the way that people want services, and that provides so many benefits. But you don’t need to roll it out to everyone in a state at once.”

Challenges to Overcome

Like any fresh technology, there are several hurdles that need to be addressed before we’re all whipping out our smartphones and clicking through to our mDLs.

One of the biggest challenges at this point appears to be a perception of security risk. Read the online user comments after any article about mDLs and you’ll discover a range of viewpoints about security protections, from those who believe mDLs are a method of government tracking to others who anticipate waves of hackers seeing the licenses as bait.

“People are more at risk now with physical documents than they would be with mDLs,” says Slagle. “So making sure that we provide adequate information about the many security and privacy controls in place would be a major part of rolling out these licenses.”

Another stumbling block may be resistance to change on the part of consumers, but no one is suggesting a wholesale changeover to mDLs. Instead, using the mobile versions will be optional, and DMVs will accommodate those who either don’t have smartphones or prefer printed cards to mobile versions.

“For example, my wife refuses to carry a smartphone; she just doesn’t like them,” says Lowe. “I doubt that an mDL would convince her otherwise. So we need to make this change a choice, not a mandate.”

Lowering that resistance would likely take mainstream usage, as well as a high degree of functionality, he says. For instance, if someone with an mDL can skip going to an office to change an address, while another user is just about to take the afternoon off work for the same task, it may be enticing to that non-mobile user to make the switch.

Lowe adds that what Iowa is finding already is an issue with managing multiple platforms, and he’s curious about what would happen when technology providers like Microsoft, Google and Apple perform system upgrades and security patches. Being able to have a flexible system that can update along with those major revamps will need to be part of the process if mDLs are going to be used widely.

Finally, another challenge for DMVs is getting to the pilot phase. Delaware is eager to launch its pilot program, but Director Scott Vien says that competing priorities are creating a minor delay. Still, the agency is speaking with vendors and watching AAMVA’s involvement as it sets the parameters for its own pilot. Even though it may be years before a rollout to customers, Vien says it’s inevitable—and very exciting.

“We’re absolutely enthusiastic about the possibilities with this,” he says. “There is still a lot of work to do to get mDLs to the point where they are available to the public, but I think that’s a future we can all embrace.”