AI License Plate Readers Are Cheaper—So Drive Carefully 1

The town of Rotterdam, New York, has only 45 police officers, but technology extends their reach. Each day a department computer logs the license plates of around 10,000 vehicles moving through and around town, using software plugged into a network of cameras at major intersections and commercial areas.

“Let’s say for instance you had a bank robbed,” says Jeffrey Collins, a lieutenant who supervises the department’s uniform division. “You can look back and see every car that passed.” Officers can search back in time for a specific plate, and also by color, make, and model of car.

Rotterdam’s program is an example of how improvements in artificial intelligence software provide cops, companies, and governments new or expanded powers of surveillance and investigation.

The tech industry’s current enthusiasm for AI was kindled by a research breakthrough in 2012 that vastly improved the ability of software to recognize objects in photos. One result is progress on still-nascent projects such as autonomous vehicles and software that diagnoses cancer. In the real world, more straightforward applications of the technology have made tracking faces or license plates much cheaper and more accurate.

Automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, first appeared at police departments in the 2000s, as specialized and expensive cameras. Collins says today those devices typically cost $15,000 to $20,000. But last year Rotterdam embraced a newer generation of ALPR technology, software that can discern plates from more or less any conventional security camera. Rotterdam’s supplier Rekor Systems charges as little as $50 a month to read plates from a single camera.

“The software is a lot more cost effective than buying a full system,” says Collins. “That can change everything.” Drivers in Rotterdam used to be watched by three conventional license plate readers, two fixed and one mounted to a police vehicle. Now, five of the town’s public security cameras also are connected to Rekor’s software, significantly expanding the police’s view of the movements of local vehicles.

What happened in Rotterdam is the latest version of a now-familiar story: Like microchips and smartphones, ALPR technology is flipping from exotic to ubiquitous. Because AI software helps computers make sense of the real world, the effects of democratizing the technology can be particularly striking—and to some concerning.

Rekor’s technology has also widened the net cast by police in Sands Point, New York, an affluent village on the north shore of Long Island. When police chief Thomas Ruehle discovered the company at a conference last October, his department, with a staff of just 20, already had a conventional license plate reader system bought more than a decade ago. Within months his officers began logging the plate of every vehicle going in and out of Sands Point, thanks to seven security cameras linked to Rekor’s software. “We have every access point to our village covered,” Ruehle says. “It makes it a gated community without putting a gate up.”

Ruehle says the new software is significantly more accurate than his department’s conventional ALPR system, correctly reading plates about 97 percent of the time, compared with about 80 percent for the older technology.

Rekor’s technology originated in open source software called OpenALPR released in 2015 by Matthew Hill, now the company’s chief science officer. He was working as a software engineer elsewhere at the time and wanted a side project that would help him learn more about machine vision. To his surprise, OpenALPR quickly drew notice from people with a professional interest in reading license plates. “People were comparing my project that took six weeks against these legacy ALPR cameras and the accuracy was on par,” Hill says.

Hill built a company around the project and made the technology more accurate by switching its conventional image-deciphering algorithms for the neural network technology that started the recent AI boom. His company was acquired last year by Novume, a publicly listed security company later renamed to Rekor. Hill’s technology is now used by police departments across the US, the Department of Defense, and offered by Nokia to cities trying to improve their digital infrastructure.