Driver’s licenses have not changed much over the past few decades. The plastic cards have become a fixture in American wallets from Maine to Hawaii, required not just when behind the wheel, but also at cigar shops, liquor stores, bars and nightclubs. They could soon be getting a makeover, however, as a growing number of U.S. states are exploring electronic and digital versions.
So far, that exploration has come in pilot programs, with state employees adding their driver’s licenses to their mobile devices via a smartphone app. They can then use the digital versions when visiting age-restricted merchants, interacting with police at traffic stops or in airport screenings with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. States like Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland and Wyoming, and even the District of Columbia, have already piloted the use of digital driver’s licenses in recent years.
Digital licenses and other electronic ID cards promise to provide increased convenience for consumers and law enforcement officials when confirming ages or identities. They could soon become a common sight where physical IDs are needed, according to Renee Krawiec, driver services senior supervisor at the Wyoming Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and Sarah Werner, communications manager at the Colorado DMV.
“It’s something that the general public has an appetite for,” Werner said.
Pilot Testing Digital IDs
The aforementioned DMVs began experimenting with digital driver’s licenses last year, and Colorado’s pilot allowed Department of Revenue employees to access and download digital ID credentials. One of the major expected benefits is the convenience, Werner explained.
“People who used it, for the most part, seemed to really like it,” she said. “They really seem to like the convenience of having it on their phones. If you’re like me, you have a little wallet case attached to your phone, and that’s all you carry, so it’s nice when you can have your ID on a device that’s so ubiquitous and always with you anyway.”
Wyoming’s pilot, meanwhile, allowed a select group of state employees to access and use digital ID credentials, then use digital driver’s license credentials during traffic stops and at TSA checkpoints. It is now moving into phase two: testing digital licenses in online and other digital environments.
Another benefit emerged as pilot testers became more comfortable using digital licenses, Krawiec said.
“You have a choice,” she explained. “You can say, ‘I’m showing this for age verification,’ or to show to TSA or to law enforcement. With law enforcement, all of the information on the driver’s license is displayed. But, for proof of age, and even TSA clearance, it shows less information.”
Despite these benefits, the dawn of the digital driver’s license poses plenty of challenges.
Issues With Digital IDs
One of the most obvious problems is losing smartphone battery life at an inopportune moment. It’s far from uncommon for users’ phone batteries to die while out for a night of bar-hopping, which would make it difficult to verify their identities with door staff. Even more problematic, however, would be a broken screen that prevents citizens from sharing ID information with law enforcement during a traffic stop, accident or other interaction.
“We’ve always made sure to let people know that a digital driver’s license is not a replacement for your physical card, [but] a supplement,” Werner explained. “We definitely encourage people to bring their cards with them, and state law definitely defines your driver’s license as a physical card, so we want to make sure people realize that this is just a supplement — another option, but not a replacement.”
Many consumers are concerned with digital ID systems’ security, though, and want to be assured that their personal information won’t be leaked in a security breach, and won’t be lost or stolen if their devices go missing. Regardless of these roadblocks, Werner and Krawiec agreed that the digital alternatives show plenty of future potential.
“I think the industry is moving that way,” Krawiec said. “How many people write a check anymore? … How many people use flip phones? They still offer flip phones, but most people have gravitated [toward] a smartphone. I see this following a kind of similar pattern.”
If those predictions are right, it may not be long before the ubiquitous physical license becomes a relic of the past.