A driving license constitutes an official document issued by a governmental authority that provides information about the holder and her permissions to operate certain motorized vehicles such as cars, trucks, or motorcycles. The driving license, i.e. the document itself, has undergone different forms of representation over the last decades.
Starting from a pure paper-based document, plastic cards, or electronic driving license including a security chip, the next evolution in front of the door is a mobile version, a so-called mobile driving license (mDL). Briefly, a mobile driving license constitutes a smart phone app providing all relevant features for proofing the entitlement to drive.
Will the mobile driving license replace the physical (electronic) driving license?
Not really. While some regions exclusively go for mobile driving licenses only, others esteem the value and benefits of issuing electronic driving licenses and see mobile driving licenses purely as a supplement.
Within the European Union, 60% of its population (app. 300 million citizens) possess a driving license, driving their vehicles within or across the Member States for private or professional purposes . Regulation and legislation of the driving license has a long history. Driving license initiatives had already started early in the 20thcentury. A major impact on the development and international acceptance of driving licenses was the United Nations Conventions on Road Traffic of Geneva in 1949 and Vienna in 1968, which defined clusters for similar vehicle types to achieve harmonization across regions.
The first EU directive (80/1263/EEC) on European driving licenses was ratified in 1984, which defined five different vehicle clusters for mutual recognition of national licenses across EU Member States. The second directive (91/439/EEC) came into force in 1991, with the aim of achieving better cross-border readability. This directive was amended a couple of times afterwards. Finally, starting in 2006 and its application in 2013, the directive (2006/126/EEC) was adopted. This third directive also includes requirements for the driving license document and the security chip, with the aim to reduce driving license fraud.
Currently, the European Commission is starting to evaluate this third directive , following possible recommendations to also work on interoperability of mobile driving licenses (non-physical driving licenses) .
Driving license technology changes over time
Following this jurisdictional timeline, driving license documents went through various technological iterations. Before 2013, more than 110 different document types existed, which were mainly national specific driving license documents. First, paper-based versions contained handwritten text and authoritative stamps, later (newer) versions used polycarbonate cards with physical security features such as ultraviolet ink or holograms.
Since 2013, a uniform EU format and security framework has been mandatory for driving licenses, to be issued in all 28 EU Member States at that time. From 2014 onwards, several Member States such as Croatia or Ireland have adopted an electronic driving license, typically a polycarbonate card including a security chip providing also strong security features. As technology has evolved over recent years, the next big step is the adoption of mobile driving licenses. Pilots for mobile or non-physical driving licenses e.g. in Finland or the Netherlands have already started in 2019. Therefore, a lot of issuing authorities of driving licenses are now investigating possibilities to provide mobile driving license versions to their citizens. However, although some Member States are quite positive on the adoption of mobile driving licenses, others raise concerns with respect to the necessity of international harmonization and the adaptation of both national laws and international treaties .
The development of a mobile driving license cannot be done in isolation
The development of mobile driving license solutions is not an isolated work done by individual countries. The EReg group (Association of European Vehicle and Driver Registration Authorities) [https://www.ereg-association.eu/] and its members are sharing best practices about ongoing activities, use cases and developments of non-physical driving licenses. In addition, the ISO/IEC JTC1 SC17 WG 10 [https://www.iso.org/committee/45144.html] is currently drafting an international standard on mobile driving licenses, focusing on the secure data exchange between a mobile driving license and a verifier over various transport channels. WG10 was also responsible for specifying the international standards series ISO/IEC 18013 on electronic driving licenses, which had built the base for the requirements of directive 2006/126/EEC.
Benefits and drawbacks of the mDL
The use of mobile driving licenses clearly has their benefits. Making use of mobile device technologies clearly goes along with the current mass adoption of smart phones and user expectations. In addition, privacy can be enhanced and complete up-to-date license information could be provided. These features may also fit other application areas, such as using the driving licenses as an identification means for private sector-services.
However, mobile driving licenses also face some drawbacks compared to physical electronic documents. Smart card-based driving licenses can be used offline, i.e. they need no internal power source as it is required by smartphones. Furthermore, smartphones are much richer in terms of functionality, have much more interfaces, and therefore provide more vulnerabilities that can be exposed through multiple threats. Moreover, compared to physical cards, mobile versions can only provide limited visual and physical security and verification features. Finally, mobile solutions are faced with a much shorter technology lifecycle because mobile technologies change rapidly.
These technological drawbacks and the absence of a current legal framework at both national and European level are just a few examples why we will not see mobile driving licenses replacing electronic driving licenses in the near future. In most EReg member countries, the mobile driving license is seen as a supplement to the current physical (smart) card . While there is certainly a positive attitude towards mobile driving license adoption in EU Member States, some Member States still want to rely on proven and mature smart card technology for their driving license documents in the future .
A driving license will accompany a driver’s life over decades. A driver may have held different representations of this official document, being it paper-based or a plastic card – with or without security chip. The next representation may well be a mobile version. However, we will not see a replacing transition. Instead, expect to see a future with an electronic driving license as the root document and a mobile version as a (very) handy supplement.
- European Commission, “Driving licence legislation ex-post evaluation”, 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiative/11930/publication/5735374/attachment/090166e5c69f1218_en
- EReg Topic Group XIX, “Non-physical driving licences – going mobile”, final report, 2018, https://www.ereg-association.eu/media/2024/finl-report-tg-xix-on-non-physical-driving-licences.pdf
- European Commission, “The implementation of Directive 2006/126/EC on driving licences”, final report, 2017, https://uhdspace.uhasselt.be/dspace/bitstream/1942/25620/1/MI0617373ENN.en.pdf