U.S. Department of Transportation Solicits Proposals From Small RFID Companies

The agency aims to find a way to stop motorcyclists who flip up their license plates and then taunt police officers to give chase.
Published: October 8, 2009

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program has posted online its solicitation for the fiscal year. The document includes a project for the development of a radio frequency-enabled license-plate system that would assist government agencies in the enforcement of traffic laws (see page 26 of the solicitation).

As it turns out, police across the United States have a problem with sport-bike riders who flip up their license plates and then taunt law-enforcement officers to initiate a chase by speeding and/or stunting. Because the officers are unable to read the license plate when a rider does this, they are unable to identify the vehicle, or its owner or rider.

Law-enforcement agencies are rarely able to do anything to stop this behavior, because a police cruiser or fixed-wing aircraft simply can not keep up with a sport bike traveling at a speed of 150 miles per hour. And because they’re unable to identify the motorcycle or its owner or operator, they can’t pursue any follow-up action, such as obtaining a search warrant in order to seize the vehicle.

This is an opportunity to get a grant that could lead to significant business, since any system developed could have other applications, such as identifying stolen vehicles. I would encourage companies with relevant technology and expertise to submit a proposal—but to keep in mind that because the solicitation is being provided under the SBIR Program, only small businesses (less than 500 employees) can qualify.

One thing that any proposal needs to address is privacy. Even if a tag carries a random serial number, people other than police officers could track bikers. I pointed this out to the program analyst spearheading this effort, and he responded:

“Should the technology prove to be feasible for what we’re trying to do here, we would work with law-enforcement agencies, jurisdictional driver-licensing agencies, prosecutors and defense attorneys and judges, to ensure that any information contained on the RFID chip would be 1) secure to protect sensitive information, 2) tamper-proof, 3) feasible for enforcement action and 4) admissible for prosecution in the court system, should the use of this technology in traffic enforcement be challenged.”

Those things are all critical, but it’s also important to ensure that people aren’t tracked without their knowledge for nefarious reasons. A female rider, for instance, could be tracked with the technology by a stalker. This is one concern with the PASS Card program, in fact—the tags can be read from 20 or 30 feet away without anyone’s knowledge, and if you can associate a random serial number with, say, Mark Roberti, then you could use RFID to track Mark Roberti.

I’m pretty confident that smart RFID engineers can devise a viable solution. Tags that can be read only by law-enforcement readers aren’t a good solution, because they open up the possibility of police embedding tags on individuals or their cars, and a vehicle’s owner would have no way to detect such a device.

I do hope RFID companies will respond to this solicitation, as it would be nice to see the technology solve this problem for the police.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.