The Andrew Turnbull Network

License Plate Gallery

March of the Flats

If there's any trend about modern vehicle license plates that seems to be growing like either a mold or a plague, it's the fact that they're not as bumpy as they used to be. Flat license plates are currently being issued to all registrants in sixteen states and the District of Columbia, and are used for special or low-quantity issues by almost a dozen more. In some ways, this has the markings of being a major trend in manufacturing technique; like the transitions to plate stickers or reflective sheeting in the decades before. Unfortunately, this shift isn't without its regressions.

How they got this way...

Although their perpetuation as of late has been a recent phenomenon, flat plates in the U.S. aren't exactly new. Some of the earliest state plates were flat; created by stenciling or printing numerals and captions onto pieces of metal. This technique fell out in favor of embossing by the 1920s. The state of Delaware (which has long had a reputation of doing things a bit differently) began issuing flat, silk-screened plates to motorists in late 1968 and hasn't looked back since.

[New York and Colorado flats] (eBay)

Modern flat plates date back to the mid 1990s, when New York and Colorado began experimenting with new thermo-transfer production techniques utilizing equipment from Azon-Utsch, a German company. This equipment allowed the potential for an entire image (graphics, captions, and serial) to be imprinted at once, and produced an image that appeared pixelated when viewed up close.

[Iowa, D.C., Wyoming flats] (personal collection and Dave Nicholson)

After experimenting with the technique on vanities for several years, Iowa had the dubious distinction of becoming the first state to issue flat plates for all types of registrations in 2001; followed closely by the D.C. and Wyoming. To make flat plates, most states use computer-based printing equipment provided or leased from 3M, which touts its technology as the "Digital License Plate" (or DLP) System. 3M is no stranger to the license plate business, having been the leading supplier of reflective sheeting for decades...though the DLP system effectively ensures that the entire design process rests in a single vendor's proprietary hands.

For better or worse...

To be fair, flat plates aren't without a few advantages. They are less labor-intensive to produce. Since the entire image can be printed in one process, different license plate designs can be printed on the fly without wrestling with rolls of pre-printed sheeting. It's easy to implement designs with light reflective characters on dark backgrounds, and the technique requires fewer chemicals to dispose of as well.

Unfortunately, these benefits aren't without their trade-offs.

Design

[3M ugly generic serial font]

The serials on most flat-plates are printed in a generic style that looks like this...an artificially-condensed derivative of the machine font Univers with some characters modified to be of more or less the same width (though letters nevertheless tend to be a bit wider than the numerals). It can charitably be described as ugly, at the very least.

This font can be stretched or foreshortened to be as wide or narrow as a state likes. Although "boldness" is sometimes touted as a supposed advantage of flat plate technology, most states that use it print the font in a form more narrow than that of the dies on equivalent embossed plates...effectively using it as a means to cram more characters into less space than would be possible with conventional equipment. (In Montana, the font is printed in a form so skinny that they could conceivably fit ten or more characters on a slim 6"x12" plate!) There's no question that skinnier characters are harder to read from far away than wider ones...and the legibility problem is exacerbated by the generic font's visual awkwardness and less-than-exemplary design features; particularly rounded numerals such as 0, 6, 8, and 9 that look completely ambiguous at a distance.

Regardless of how wide or readable the characters are, this font looks nothing like the characters of a typical embossed plate...and for good reason. Most embossed serial dies are of fixed width, so that the composition of different characters don't affect their positioning on the plate. Characters are proportioned with large gaps of inner space between strokes, allowing for letterforms that are more distinct and legible at a distance. Embossed dies also tend to be of a fixed stroke width (a characteristic a machine font loses the moment it's distorted), and they tend to be designed explicitly for license plate use as well.

[3M not-so-ugly serial font]

As a tenuous solution, several states (including Colorado, Washington, and New York) have adopted custom serial fonts that match the forms of their concurrent embossed plates, and a better-looking font patterned off Minnesota's serial dies has apparently been made default on newer versions of 3M's DLP system. Surprisingly, no states aside from Iowa with some early flat vanities have ever used FHWA road-sign fonts on flat license plates...even though they're available in a variety of widths (negating the need to artificially stretch or squish characters); were designed explicitly for legibility in on-road use, and are available in some freeware incarnations. Supposedly, the digital plate systems are prosaic computer programs that can output any font at will; so they could just as well be printing in Wingdings.

[flat plate glare]

Eliminating the generic serial font partially solves some of the readability problems of flat plates...but some problems are inescapable no matter how the characters look. A flat plate that has been covered in a film of dirt or snow is completely illegible, whereas an embossed plate can still be read. Flat plate serials will also be obscured by glare when light reflects off the sheen of the sheeting; particularly when viewed at an angle.

Meanwhile, one of the most frequently-cited advantages of a digital license plate printing system...the ability to imprint different, multi-color graphic designs on license plates without wrestling with huge rolls of pre-printed sheeting...has no need to be done while flat-printing serials on the plates. States can print computer-generated graphics on flat blanks, then emboss and paint a serial on the blanks in conventional fashion. At least one state...Pennsylvania...does just that.

Durability

Although dramatic regressions in aesthetics and readability are the most pronounced trade-offs that "digital" license plates promote, other problems exist as well. Most states that adopt flat-plate technology still need to retain hydraulic embossing equipment; if only to lend a stamped edge to the plates for stiffness. The alternative used by several states such as Iowa, Indiana, and Nebraska is to produce plates without any stamping characteristics at all...literally, a paper-flat piece of thin-gauge aluminum. Such plates can be easily cut by a would-be sticker thief. They flap and vibrate considerably when mounted to a car, and front plates inevitably get reduced to crumpled tinfoil after a few bumper lascerations in the elements.

[Worn-out vs. flat Nevada] (personal collection)

Just how well flat plates hold up to the elements over time is an unknown quantity; since no state save Delaware with its thick-gauge, screen-printed examples has been issuing them on a wide scale longer than thirteen years. Reflective sheeting gradually deteriorates when exposed to the elements, and after many years outdoors it will flake or shed to the point of exposing the bare metal. An embossed plate can typically still be read in such a condition, but a flat plate will be completely bare. If anything, this problem is even more pertinent today than it was a few years ago: Bouts of shoddy 3M product control have resulted in plates losing reflectivity and turning gray without any outdoor exposure at all.

Cost

Cost savings are often touted as a benefit of flat-plate technology, and the resulting product does feel intrinsically "cheap"...yet the question of if it even reduces costs in the first place is a question mark. It appears that most assessments favoring flats factor sunk costs into the comparison...making flat plates more cost-effective only in the event that a state's dies and embossing equipment were destroyed and a plate shop had to be reconstructed from scratch. The real costs may vary: In Colorado, the price of producing a flat plate was $2.54 as of 2006; versus $1.63 for an embossed plate. Likewise, in a questionnaire surrounding its last license plate reissue, the Pennsylvania DOT stated the following: "Producing flat plates (as opposed to those with raised alpha-numeric characters) is nearly twice as expensive and would not have been an effective use of taxpayer dollars."

[flat Texas plate]

Easy to counterfeit

By being stamped, a traditional embossed license plate is intrinsically difficult to fake or alter...at least, without looking blatantly hilarious. By contrast, a digitally-produced flat plate can be convincingly duplicated with little more than a copy machine, a piece of cardboard, and a laminator...especially in the case of a plain and colorless design like Texas' (right). A casual bystander would have to touch one or wait for a heavy rainstorm to fall in order to tell a counterfeit license apart from the real thing. (3M seems to have responded to this potential by implementing more holographic security devices into its sheeting, but there's no reason for this potential to really exist at all).

Prison skills

Though it's a fact that few would want to admit, license plates are produced by prison labor in over forty states and the province of Ontario. Part of the role of a plate shop in a correctional environment is to impart vocational skills in the tool, die, and machinery trades upon inmates to serve them post-release. The manufacturing processes of "digital" plate systems involve considerably less diversified labor, so there are fewer opportunities to fulfill this premise in a jurisdiction that produces flat plates exclusively.

People don't like them

Yes, I know it sounds trite. But, given all the other damning implications that flat plates enjoy, it's hardly a stretch to make one final assertion. Why else would DMVs be bombarded by complaints and reports of "fake-looking" plates every time they give digital plate technology a try? Why else did the Wyoming legislature actually propose legislation in the early 2000s that would have forced the state to revert to embossing its license plates?

Current status of flat plates nationwide

[Flat plate distribution map]

Generally, I use "generic" to refer to this and other artificially-distorted print fonts, and "legible" for digital reproductions of actual embossed die styles and fonts explicitly designed for on-road use. Some states that use flat plate technology do so to considerably lesser degrees than others: By the time the other shoe dropped in 2009, all license plates in Texas aside from sequential passenger and truck issues were flat. By contrast, for several years West Virginia's sole endeavor was a vertical motorcycle plate that perhaps less than a dozen people knew existed.

All plates flat:

State Year
Iowa Aug. 2001 (all); 1997
District of Columbia Oct. 2001
Wyoming Oct. 2001
Delaware Nov. 2002 (digital); 1968
Indiana Jan. 2003
Montana Dec. 2003
South Dakota Feb. 2004
Nebraska May 2004
Tennessee Jan. 2006 (all); 2005
South Carolina Oct. 2007
Alabama June 2008 (all); 2007
Arizona Feb. 2008
Idaho Apr. 2008
Minnesota June 2008 (all); 2003
Oklahoma Jan. 2009
Texas July 2009 (all); 2002
Georgia May 2012 (all); 2007
New Jersey Apr. 2014 (all); 2011
North Dakota Nov. 2015
Flat plates used for special issues, vanities, and/or non-passenger issues only:

State Year
New York 1995
Colorado 1997
Missouri 1997
Mississippi 2002
Oregon 2002 (dark-background designs only)
Ohio 2003
Nevada 2004 †
Washington 2005
West Virginia 2006 (newer designs only)
Wisconsin 2010 (Endangered Resources design only)


(The above tables are accurate to the best of my knowledge; although any corrections are welcome.)

† Nevada issued flat passenger plates from December 2006 to July 2015; reverting to embossing at that time. Flat non-passenger and special issues are likely still being issued, but I'm unclear whether or not they are still being made.

Future trends

In spite of their drawbacks, flat plates have made an amazing amount of penetration nationwide since the dawn of the millennium alone...and unfortunately, it isn't bound to stop any time soon.

The juggernaut has slowed somewhat, though. Only three new states have fully defected to the "flat camp" in the last five years; Georgia, New Jersey, and North Dakota. Have 3M's "Digital License Plate" lobbyists run into diminishing returns at last? One can only hope.

Also fortunate for fans of legibility, there have been cases where states wound up going the other way. Alaska made the unprecedented move of reverting to fully-embossed plates in late 2004 after experimenting with flat non-passenger, vanity, and special issues. North Carolina did likewise after a brief flat stint in 2008-09, and Mississippi followed suit for some non-passenger types in 2007 (though many other types remain flat). In 2015, Nevada became the newest case study for this phenomenon.

Since 2010, Wyoming has allowed motorists to order embossed license plates (actually produced in Colorado) for an extra fee...but these plates actually use a reverse-engineered, embossed version of the ugly, generic font used on flat plates for their serials; defeating the purpose of the option. Nevada is another state that's made some odd post-flat concessions: Two years before formally reverting to embossed passenger plates, it tested the waters by introducing an optional Sesquicentennial plate produced by printing the numbers on the sheeting flat and digitally, lining the image up with embossed dies, and then stamping the plate!

Are some areas of the country more prone to "falling" for flat plates than others? Since flat plates are being promoted to governments by 3M's lobbyists and nothing but, it could be argued that the states without them are less susceptible to adverse corporate influence and corruption...on one tangent, anyway. New England fares the best: The six states that inhabit the northeast corner of the U.S. are mercifully flat-free to this day...though some storm clouds in Rhode Island may be over the horizon.

Although flat license plates in and of themselves are hardly a uniquely American phenomenon, the "digital" technology used to produce them seems to have been limited in its worldwide applications so far. Some overseas U.S. possessions (specifically Puerto Rico and briefly the Northern Mariana Islands) have converted to flat plates, as has the Canadian territory of Nunavut...but otherwise, the trend has come to little avail elsewhere on the globe. Will it stay that way forever? We'll only have to wait and see.

[Home] The Network [Back] License Plates





Valid XHTML 1.0! ©2010-16 Andrew Turnbull.
Last update 17 January 2016.