What Lies Ahead

What Lies Ahead

AAMVA partners with industry experts to detail where DMV operations are headed in the future

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In the spring of 2019, Georgia’s Motor Vehicle Division launched a major technology upgrade to its 20-year-old mainframe-based tag and title system. To promote the system and prepare all the counties—which handle most of the vehicle title and registration services—the division kicked off an awareness campaign that included a 19-city roadshow.

“I did a [media] blitz to get the message out,” says Georgia Steele, Ph.D., chief performance officer for Georgia Department of Revenue (which oversees motor vehicles). Steele ran radio PSAs and social media campaigns, spoke to elected officials, held press conferences and appeared on daytime TV shows to talk about the new e-services portal and improved customer service. “I wanted people to fully understand that we’re making this huge investment, and we needed their patience while we were transitioning.” She says it was a struggle at times to explain the replacement system, but she pushed forward, sometimes using a flip phone as a prop.

In one setting, she spoke to a room of 20 commissioners, one of whom still used a flip phone; she compared that to the outdated technology at DMV. “There’s nothing wrong with a flip phone,” she told them, “but I’m trying to position us correctly for where the future is going.”

That future is the topic of a report released in August 2020, which identifies and assesses the biggest trends administrators are seeing as they find themselves at a crossroads—looking at legacy missions and new technology—as they work to modernize their operations across the United States and Canada. The 28-page report, Trends Impacting the DMV of the Future, was produced by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Cambridge Systematics, Inc., and guided by a seven-member technical working group. The volunteer group comprised experts and leaders from academia, industry and the DMV community from California, Georgia, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

“Having it all in one report—the major trends, expectations of customers and the capabilities necessary to meet the future more aggressively—is valuable to DMV leaders,” says AAMVA President and CEO Anne Ferro. “Our board members had raised the idea of having a compilation of what’s happening in the future because for DMVs, planning forward is part of their daily work and part of our annual budget process. This report creates a clearer and more concise summation for policymakers who may fund these programs.”

Research for the report began in late 2019 and was supplemented by a follow-up workshop after the start of the pandemic. COVID-19 provided what Ferro calls a “live experiment” of what it means for DMVs to shift to digital services; it amplified or accelerated nearly all of the trends addressed in the report and propelled many departments and their customers into the future—even if they weren’t quite ready.

“The report mirrors what’s been tested in this pandemic service delivery space,” she says. “The pandemic created a live pilot of what it means to pivot quickly in how services are delivered and literally tell somebody, ‘For public health reasons, you can’t do that service in person; you can only do it digitally.’ We need to continue to evolve in this concept of virtual service and the use of digital identity to access secure online services.”

The Front Door to Government Service

Often, the first time a new state resident or a young person comes in contact with their state government is at the DMV when they’re getting their ID, driver’s license or vehicle registration. DMV administrators understand that they only have one chance to make a first impression. “We’re a huge part of people’s lives,” says Steele, a member of the report’s technical working group. “We’re a portal for an interface for so many other services. So we want to be on the front of technology in a way that puts government in a positive light.”

In creating the report, the technical working group brainstormed together and talked about current technological and social trends and how they might affect the future operations of motor vehicle agencies, including growing populations and changing demographics, reduced budgets, increasingly tech-savvy customers and an increase of remote services and teleworking. The participants’ concerns, insights, hopes and fears were invaluable to the report; they talked about doing more with less and discussed how operations could look in the future.

“We prioritized the issues that are in the final report,” says Shelly Mellott, deputy executive director of Texas DMV, also a member of the technical working group that helped assemble the report. “These are the issues that members are seeing now and will see in the near future, and the report prompts them to start thinking about how they want to prepare. We need to think bigger and be more strategic in how we develop our service options, so they will continue to be relevant for years in the future.”

The report is organized around trends and various pathways the DMV could take; plausible futures for DMVs in the 2020s; and a brief implementation plan that defines success for the research, lays out potential next steps and discusses how DMVs can make organizational change. It also identifies the direction of certain trends: The trends are either “accelerating” (such as mobile driver licenses), “maintaining” (such as digital copies not completely replacing paper records), or “reversing” (such as concerns about autonomous vehicles).

Remote Working, Remote Services

Among the biggest trends is the shift to remote working. Before the pandemic, Mellott says, the Texas DMV was experimenting with telecommuting, and in March 2020, the department went from 10% of its staff working remotely to 90% practically overnight. Staff served customers through call centers, mail-in transactions and online transactions while service centers were closed; once employees were outfitted with the proper PPE, the centers reopened by appointment. The Texas DMV is currently working on several projects that will allow the department to move more transactions online, 24/7.

“Because of the success we have had with telecommuting our call center employees, we will continue to telecommute full-time moving forward,” Mellott says. “That allows us to expand our hiring for those positions statewide to get a larger, more qualified applicant pool, and it helps with employee retention.”

The shift to remote working decreases costs to DMVs and improves options for staff. But it also raises questions, according to the report, such as how to preserve privacy and sensitive information, how to foster collaboration and communication between employees, what new software and equipment is needed and whether some tasks should be privatized or permanently outsourced to increase efficiency.

Ferro acknowledges that remote working is a critical topic and one that had been previously explored but generally rejected; DMVs, historically, are expected to serve the public over the counter, in a lobby and on an examination drive course. “To envision that a big part of the workforce could be working from home through secure mechanisms and documents being transferred digitally is a really interesting development,” she says.

Another DMV trend growing in parallel is the explosion of technology and remote services. As the change occurs, leaders have the opportunity to determine which services must occur face-toface, which can be conducted remotely and which can be subject to screening. Many jurisdictions are relying on artificial intelligence—like the chatbots commonly seen on corporate sites—to assist customers with website inquiries. That saves time for both the customer and the DMV. “It creates a much less person-intensive experience,” Ferro says, “and sometimes it’s more satisfying for the customer who doesn’t really want the human interaction. They want to just get it done in the middle of the night because that’s when they’re up.”

The state of Georgia has been testing out ways to “put the customer in the driver’s seat,” Steele says, by creating infrastructure that provides more services, safety and security without having to physically touch documentation. The jurisdiction’s tag-renewal kiosks in Kroger grocery stores, for example, have been wildly successful. “During lockdown, people were getting groceries and then renewing at the kiosk—walking away with decals—in less than 90 seconds,” Steele says. But she also recognizes that different generations have different needs. Young drivers may want instant gratification, but older individuals may still want to walk in the doors of a defined brick-and-mortar building.

The Pandemic’s Silver Lining

In 2016, the state of Idaho recorded 260,000 online DMV transactions, and in 2020, that number nearly tripled, says Alberto Gonzalez, DMV division administrator at the Idaho Transportation Department and AAMVA board member. “The way consumers interact with the government is changing at a rapid pace,” he says. “We have the pandemic to thank for expediting the innovation.” When he looks five years ahead, he sees a significant increase of online services, mail transactions and chatbot interactions—to accommodate not only the exploding population in his state but also a department that he says is unlikely to grow.

Distance-Forward Service—a model that encourages customers to use online and digital services at multiple points in the process—was put to the test in a lot of areas during the pandemic and is fully in reach of DMVs within the next decade, according to the Trends report. This model features a website or app that allows customers to verify their identity, upload and sign documents, take a written test, order a license plate or toll tag and view a driving record. When customers need to go to a DMV location, kiosks will mimic the functions of the website and app for those without internet.

Gonzalez agrees that brick-and-mortar interaction should be the last resort but also strongly supports models like the kiosk. “Certain populations are disadvantaged because of technology,” he says. “I still think you have to have multiple doors to access our services.”

With the shift to digital services, many questions remain about privacy and data. Data sharing can sharply reduce fraud, and it allows, for instance, multiple jurisdictions to know about dangerous drivers. But will DMVs one day need to justify sharing personal data with other agencies? As stewards of social security numbers, addresses and birthdate data, DMVs need to store and secure information carefully. “A single breach at any DMV could undermine the public’s confidence,” the report reads. As a result, data security protocols are top of mind for many DMV members.

Gonzalez stresses the importance of DMV administrators having a strong partnership with their agency’s cybersecurity teams. “Once you digitize your records, you don’t have to pack up all this paperwork, so people can work from home,” says Gonzalez. (His jurisdiction has reached near-100% digitization in the last couple years.) “But you do need to create additional security safeguards and implement tight controls on the access.”

The report also addresses trends around vehicle-sharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and how autonomous vehicle systems are tested and licensed. The report asks, “What level of comprehensiveness is required in the testing of autonomous systems, and what level of comfort will humans have with the inevitable but rare gaps?”

A Road Map for Tomorrow

Six months after the report was released, members of the technical working group are grateful to have served and to have helped create “DMV of the Future.” Steele says she considers the report an important read not just for DMV administrators but also for staff. “Those who aren’t in management may feel like they don’t have a say in the changes,” she says, “but by seeing what might come down the road, they can be a part of these shifts.”

The authors of the report hope it will serve as a point of reference for DMVs in developing road maps for their post-COVID decade. They expect the research to be used by agencies referring back to trends and plausible futures when mapping their next steps.

In many ways, Ferro says, the timing of the report’s release was perfect. “I certainly heard some administrators say, ‘It really helps me in my conversations with the governor’s office,’ or ‘I’d love to share it with my lead transportation committee over in the general assembly,’” she says. Over the past months, she’s heard anecdotal evidence that the compilation of trends has been valuable. “They’re heartening,” she says of the comments. “And I hope there are many more who will find it useful.”

Download the Trends Impacting the DMV of the Future report.

Sparking Innovative Thinking

“Operations eats strategy for breakfast.”

Nathan Higgins, principal investigator for AAMVA’s Trends Impacting the DMV of the Future, heard this from a DMV executive while he was conducting interviews for the study in 2019, and it stuck with him for the duration of the project.

“Operations eats strategy for breakfast because operations requires immediate attention,” Higgins says of the common perception. “This comment reinforced for us how important it was that we conduct strategy work on [DMV executives’] behalf. We help them peek around the corner and think about what’s next.”

Higgins and his team at Cambridge Systematics, Inc., were contracted to create the report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. TRB, which as of November 2020 has been operating for 100 years, using independent research to promote innovation and progress in transportation. Cambridge Systematics, which was founded nearly 50 years ago by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, is a leader in the transportation industry, working with hundreds of clients on the federal, state, regional and local levels as well as those in the nonprofit, private and international spheres. Higgins says the team at Cambridge enjoys work that involves planning and thinking about the future, so the AAMVA study was a natural fit. The project marked AAMVA’s first time partnering with the firm or TRB.

Cambridge Systematics began in late 2019 by interviewing DMV executives and asking them questions such as, “What keeps you up at night?” and “What are you most interested in learning about that you haven’t had a chance to look into yourself?” Then, it supplemented the material gained from interviews with literature, including academic research from TRB, AAMVA, AAA, trade publications and articles that addressed trends in demographics and technology. It reinterviewed the executives in the spring of 2020 to discuss how trends were advancing through the pandemic and the role of telework.

The research was organized around “scenario planning,” which weaves various pathways together into many plausible futures. “It looks at the full miasma of all the scenarios and different combinations,” says Joe Zissman, the project’s deputy principal investigator. He says one challenge of working on a study that’s supposed to identify a potentially infinite number of trends was knowing when to say when. “How do you know when to stop?” he asks. The interviews, he noted, helped the team orient its research in the right direction, but there’s always the potential for more research.

Zissman says he was impressed by the vision and understanding of all the DMV executives who contributed to the study. “I hope our document triggers these insightful people to think further,” he says. “If we could jog their thinking or inspire a ‘eureka’ moment of things they hadn’t thought about, that’s all you can hope for.”

Listen to a conversation about the DMV of the Future report with Cambridge Systematics in AAMVAcast Episode 44.

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