NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A News 2 investigation into possibly flawed Tennessee license plates has the state investigating whether the new plates are invisible to some LPR cameras around the state. And now it’s possible that some Tennessee specialty plates already on the roads could be just as hard for these cameras to see at night.
Tim Holman is an electrical engineer who first alerted News 2 to the problem. “I’ve been working in integrated circuit design throughout my career.”
The engineer has six security cameras on his front porch, some of which are capable of reading license plates that roll by. “Whenever I first spotted this problem on my LPR cameras, I wanted to confirm, with another camera what I was seeing was real,” Holman said.
He showed News 2 a smaller LPR camera that he says he built himself for around $100. “This little camera uses 850 Nanometers infrared light which is what many LPR systems around the state use.”
On February 14, Holman did an experiment using his portable LPR camera. He pointed it at a Tennessee Woman Veteran Plate near his home. “This is the first one I found,” he says pointing to the obscured image on his laptop.
At night, on his camera, the numbers and much of the identifying information washes away in a field of white. “The ‘Tennessee’ is gone. The woman veteran is gone. Both the background and the letters themselves are reflecting the light about equally,” Holman said.
Holman already demonstrated a problem with the new plates for News 2. He showed how the Tennessee logo at the top of a new plate has disappeared.
Holman said he made the discovery around February 2, and that it was accidental. There was a series of car burglaries near his home and he was trying to find license plate info for the police using his camera system. That’s when he noticed an absence of plates going by his home, “That’s when I realized the plate I could not see was one of the new plates.”
In previous stories, News 2 has shown examples of the old plate, bright and visible at night. The new plate, under some camera systems, is often dark or washed out.
Pointing at the dark plate with no identifiers, Holman referenced the missing Tennessee logo at the top of the plate. “This makes more of a problem. At night what state does that plate belong to? you cannot tell.”
And Holman said the squiggly security thread, barely visible, in the middle of the old Tennessee plate is a big blur on the new plate. “That thread is there so police can easily glance at the plate and know if it is counterfeit.”
On the new plate, it is fuzzy, complicating the composition. “It almost seems like an L or an I or a 1 and it would confuse the camera,” Holman said.
Holman added his little homemade infrared camera system is just like many LPR systems around the state. The issue is the camera has trouble differentiating between the numbers and letters and the plate’s background at night. And adverse weather conditions can make reading the new plates even more difficult.
The Department of Safety said it is investigating the possible flaw in the plate and it continues to produce the plate and issue them to motorists around the state.
As of Monday, the Tennessee Department of Revenue said it has issued more than half a million new plates, the exact total being 510,207.
News 2 sampled people coming from the Davidson County Clerk’s Office in Nashville. One man said, “It is not safe they need to fix it.”
And when informed that the state is still producing the possibly flawed plate and issuing them to motorists, the man said this, “It’s not a good idea. I definitely disagree with that. They need to stop as soon as possible. It’s going to cause a lot of trouble, and people could do anything, they are just invisible basically.”
A couple who just moved from Illinois and was purchasing their new Tennessee tag had this to say: “We just had that conversation. Why are they ordering more till they know it is correct. And that we need to have it right.”
Her husband added, “someone didn’t do their homework.”
Every office is different, but the Davidson County Clerk told News 2, from January 1 through February 14, 2022, the office has issued 41,249 new license plates. Officials say they average 1,473 plates per day and they currently have 72,000 new plates in stock waiting to ship out.
The Tennessee Woman Veteran plate was created in 2008 and is one of more than 100 specialty plates offered by the state. There are currently 2,174 Tennessee Woman Veteran plates on the road, according to the state’s Department of Revenue.
The department also said that, until recent reports, they weren’t aware of any issue related to the readability of Tennessee license plates by LPRs.