Driving tests

Digital driver licences in New Zealand

What is a digital driver licence?

A digital driving licence is a secure identification stored on a smartphone or other device which you can use to prove that you have the right to drive. It is not necessary to have a physical manifestation, such as the plastic card that we all carry around with us now. A plastic card may be a backup option but ultimately won’t be required.

Advantages

  • Convenience: the majority of people carry around a smartphone and this device is doing more and more for us – cashless transactions, for example. Having one less card to carry around is more convenient. Information can be linked between various systems to provide benefits. For example, your digital licence might also function as a public transport card or instant access into age-restricted venues. New industries will spring up to make life easier for you with a digital driver licence.
  • Cost-saving: producing and mailing a physical plastic card, plus replacing lost and stolen cards, uses up resources and costs money. Sure, a digital driver licence must be driven by a database and some kind of application on smartphones, but all this information is already held in a database and the development of an app is not a huge investment.
  • Environmental advantage: less plastic in the environment is desirable. Plastic driver licence cards use oil and chemicals to produce and when they expire they need to be disposed of. Posting them to you uses fuel and paper. There’s a small cumulative effect, too, of the additional weight carried around in the form of cards. While it’s only around 5 grams, there are around 3.5 million driver licence holders in New Zealand. If we assume that 3 million of these carry their licences around with them all the time, we are collectively transporting 15 tonnes of plastic every day.
  • Fraud protection: faking a licence will become more difficult because they will be cross-checked against other database records in real time. It will be harder to steal a licence. If your phone is lost or stolen you will be able to log in and either suspend the licence or move it to another device.
  • Instant updates: with physical licences you have to wait several days after you have passed a test until you get your new licence. With a digital driver licence it could be updated as soon as the test result is logged in the database.
  • International driving: if a standard was adopted across many countries, instant translations could be performed. For example, if you’re driving in Italy, the licence could be presented in Italian. This would mean an international driving permit would not be required.

Disadvantages

  • Data security: protecting data from hackers is a war with escalating technology, and it is expensive to fight. No system is truly hacker-proof so there is always a risk that your data will be stolen. This risk exists in many different places – it’s not just the digital driver licence systems.
  • Non-accepted ID in other countries: a New Zealand digital driver licence might not be accepted as valid photo ID in another country like a plastic card is.
  • Technology problems: the driver licence might require access to the internet to function properly and we all know how patchy our internet can be when we’re are on some rural roads; if you get pulled over by the police and need to prove your identity, this could be a problem. If your phone battery has run out, how do you prove your ID? Or, if your phone is stolen or lost?
  • Dual systems mean potential extra cost: at the moment we just have a plastic card but moving to a dual system means more training for those who need to check IDs, costs administering the system and associated apps and the cost of providing support services to people who don’t understand how it works.

Should New Zealand have digital driver licences?

With the recent census moving predominantly online, it is a good indication of how government services will be administered and delivered in the future. Digital driver licences are inevitable. They have been trialled in Dubbo in New South Wales and England is introducing them.

New Zealand has a relatively small population that is very well connected with high adoption for smartphone use and internet access. We have a strong record of innovation in various industries and we readily accept new technologies. New Zealand is a good place to introduce digital driver licences and, given the amount of travel between Australia and New Zealand, would be wise to adopt a similar technology and set of standards as Australia.

What is required to make digital licences a global reality?

An open framework of standards around data storage and presentation which could be adopted by different countries would make it much easier to travel between countries and drive there without having to have an international driving permit. Difficulties would include different standards of which vehicles can be driven on which licences; this mostly applies to heavy vehicles which have different weight and type categories. Internationally, it would be most convenient for car drivers who drive on holiday or while on a business trip.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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