Mobile driver’s license shown from a car
#Identity Technology

Mobile driver’s licenses: shifting up a gear

7 Mins.

Citizens everywhere (but especially younger ones) have clear expectations that the important documents and services they use every day are available on their mobile devices – and the ubiquitous driver’s license is no exception. With issuing authorities around the globe embracing the advantages of digital driver’s licenses, a wave of state- and country-wide implementations now looks imminent.

Around the world, driver’s licenses are poised to make the move from wallets, card holders, and purses to mobile phones. Numerous states and countries have spent the past half a decade exploring the effectiveness, security, and user experience of mobile driver’s licenses (mDLs), and, independently, they have largely reached the same conclusion: that there is now an increasingly compelling case for digital driver’s licenses, not just as proof of driving eligibility but also to act as verification of identity in a much wider set of situations.

The momentum behind mDLs is particularly strong in the US and Canada, where the citizen’s driver’s license remains the primary form of identification – as well as proof of age and address. After a series of successful pilots and the creation of appropriate legislation and standards, several states are now poised for large-scale rollouts1, with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) leading efforts to define implementation guidelines.

Natural progression

The move is being widely welcomed by authorities and citizens alike (especially “digital natives”), though with some careful considerations regarding security, inclusivity, and interoperability.

The arrival of mDLs is seen as a logical extension of the use of digital wallets and mobile apps to safeguard other important documents, including payment cards, tickets, proof of insurance, vaccination certificates, and boarding passes. But, in many ways, mobile driver’s licenses are more powerful because of the authority they convey.

So, what are the characteristics of an mDL, and what are the pros and cons of taking the license mobile?

An mDL is a digital driver’s certificate that is a digitalized version of the data sets used on a physical driver’s license. When required, it can be transmitted to a trusted third-party device (usually via a QR code) in order to electronically verify driving qualifications and related data such as age. As such, an mDL complements rather than replaces its physical counterpart.

The benefits of loading an mDL in your digital wallet

The early trials and implementations have highlighted a host of advantages that are expected to flow to citizens and public authorities from the large-scale adoption of mDLs:

  • Contactless interaction: There’s no need to hand over a physical card to someone. Whether during a traffic stop, checking in for a flight, or verifying ID in a bank, a user can simply show the ID on their phone as a QR code. That is an increasingly appealing option for younger people, many of whom have stopped carrying the physical wallet in which they would have traditionally kept their driver’s license. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore, there are situations where keeping physical contact to a minimum is desirable.
  • Enhanced privacy: In contrast with a physical license, a digital option allows users to only share a selective set of information when showing their identity and related data. For instance, when presenting proof of age at a liquor store or picking up a prescription at a pharmacy, they can show a QR code that only shares the information needed for that specific transaction.
Woman in a car holding a smart phone displaying a QR code
Show and go: mobile driver’s licenses offer a highly convenient, user-friendly, and secure option to citizens and public authorities.
  • Secured personal data: If a physical card is lost, copied, or stolen, the owner has little or no control over who subsequently can view that personal information – with identity theft a real threat. With a digital driver’s license, no one can access such information without knowing the password to the smartphone and app, even when a password-less login such as a biometric scan is used.
  • Complementary view: In the US and Canada, where the physical driver’s license is a don’t-leave-home-without-it item, only 29% of people say they would rather lose their wallet than their phone; in smartphone-centric China, the reverse is true, and elsewhere in the world the split is closer to fifty-fifty.2 A digital driver’s license, held securely on a phone, as a complement to the plastic card, would ease the anxiety of losing a wallet or leaving it at home, and is likely to change those proportions in the future.
  • Up-to-date data: Traditional cards can – and do – contain outdated information. In the UK, for example, an estimated 4% of the 50 million registered driver’s licenses contain out-of-date information at any one point.3 With a digital card, data is updated in real time, ensuring authorities are always viewing the driver’s current status. That is particularly useful for patrol officers who can view when a license has been revoked, suspended, or canceled, or whether the user has demerit points for traffic violations – not something that would show immediately on a physical license.
  • Remote wiping: If a user’s smartphone is lost or stolen, the app and data on the phone can simply be erased from the device remotely.
  • Offline environments: Advanced mobile driver’s license systems are not restricted to areas where there is a reliable connection. They are also designed to work in remote, offline environments.
  • Timely notifications: Mobile apps can provide notifications and alerts to the user prior to an upcoming license renewal date or the need for an age-related test, thus avoiding invalid use and potential tickets and fines.

Wider form of identity verification

Of course, a mobile driver’s license can be a much broader source of digital identity than proving someone is authorized to drive a vehicle. It can support digital identities for travel credentials.

It can enable commercial third parties selling age-restricted items, such as alcohol or lottery tickets, to quickly and more reliably verify the user’s ID (usually by connecting to the license authority’s information infrastructure and scanning data using a code reader). That is especially important in the US, where variations in license layouts mean date of birth information is displayed in different positions on the license, increasing the chances of error at the cash register.

Mobile licenses are also likely to have high appeal in financial services settings. When opening new customer accounts, banks, brokerages, and financial institutions are required to meet “know your customer” (KYC)/anti-money-laundering (AML) regulations. An mDL provides proof of identity in a convenient mobile package – both in person and online when the customer is not physically present.

The same capabilities are also applicable when proving eligibility for government services. Indeed, an identity-proving process based on mDLs would arguably increase security and improve audit logging and verification.

Turning challenges into opportunities

As with any new technology, there are safeguards and concerns about mDLs that have needed to be addressed:

  • Public concerns: One ongoing challenge for mDLs is public perception. The shift from a highly secure physical card to trusting smartphone-based credentials requires public buy-in to be successful. And that means outreach, education, and high levels of coordination across the mDL ecosystem, on both benefits and safeguards. Commercial organizations involved in mDLs must also be aware of the policies and regulations that surround the shift to digital licenses, as well as changes to enabling technologies. For example, airport officials need to be aware of when and where an mDL is an equally valid form of ID as a traditional card. (As part of a trial in the US started in March 2022, three major airports currently accept mDL as valid ID for internal flights.)
  • Inclusion: The issue of inclusion is a crucial one, too. The mobile driver’s license cannot realistically become a universal replacement for all physical versions of licenses. And for good reason: in Canada, for example, 12% of adults don’t own a smartphone,4 and that number is closer to 40% for people 65 and over.5
  • Interoperability: There are also vital questions about interoperability: the mDL implementations in different states and countries will in many cases need to work seamlessly together. Organizations such the AAMVA have been championing the development of international standards designed to ensure that mDLs developed by different suppliers are valid across different jurisdictions and can be used across the mDL ecosystem of license holders, issuing authorities, verifiers, and providers of mDL readers and infrastructure.

A new generation of mobile licenses

As a pioneer of end-to-end, integrated identity documents, Veridos already provides highly secure physical driver’s license cards for multiple provinces and states across Canada and the US, as well as around the world. VeriGO® DriveID extends the Veridos driver’s license life cycle management solutions with a smartphone-based driver’s license application underpinned by an advanced back-end system.

“Mobile driver’s license and ID solutions are an opportunity to expand on the core document and life cycle solutions our customers already rely on, while growing the Veridos value chain in the digital space.“
Xavier Prost
Global Vice President, Identity Management Solutions, Veridos

Designed as a complement to the conventional driver’s license card, VeriGO® DriveID is a highly convenient, user-friendly, and secure mDL solution that can be applied in many different circumstances and environments. As well as being used by law enforcement officers for contactless authentication of a citizen’s identity and driving authorization – even when the interaction is in an area with no internet service. The app also supports the use of mDLs to prove credentials in any number of different situations – from digital voting to gaining access to a casino.

Such Veridos innovation is now driving mobile driver’s license initiatives in scores of states and countries around the world, suggesting that mDLs are about to become commonplace. As the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators proclaims unequivocally: “The mobile driver's license (mDL) is the future of licensing and proof of identity.”

  1. mDL Implementation map, The Secure Technology Alliance

  2. Me, my life, my wallet, KPMG 2021

  3. Is your driving licence valid?, 2022

  4. Smartphone penetration rate (Canada), Statistica, 2023

  5. Smartphone use and smartphone habits, Statistics Canada, 2018

Published: 23/02/2023

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