Imagine a computer screen from 1986 — rows and rows of blocky green text on a plain black background — and you’ve got a pretty good picture of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles mainframe.
When they’re being nice, RMV staff call it “old-school.” When they’re not, they say it looks like the video game “Pong.”
But that’s about to change.
Rachel Kaprielian, head of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, met with state legislators last week to brief them on a plan to update the registry’s technology and bring it into the 21st century.
In part, her presentation was intended to allay concerns of state leaders vexed by news that the registry planned to halve the number of branches, consolidating staff into larger offices and encouraging customers to rely more heavily on online services.
RMV officials plan to establish online accounts for all Massachusetts drivers, so drivers can keep their license information up to date, and track expiration dates and pending citations. They will introduce new software that will link a person’s driving record with their vehicle’s registration records. And they hope to place registry branches with electronic kiosks at AAA offices, supermarkets, and big-box stores.
And perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, the RMV will be able to provide electronic driver’s licenses that can be uploaded onto smartphones.
The modernization process will unfold over the course of the next four years, but many of the changes will be seen in 2014.
The entire project is estimated to cost the state about $76 million — a necessary cost to update a fundamental part of the state’s infrastructure, Kaprielian said.
Most of the money for the project will come from state capital bonds designated for information technology projects.
“There are a lot of limits with the current system — I mean, it was developed during the Reagan administration,” Kaprielian said. “The time has definitely come where we can really think much bigger, because we’ll have the technology to do it.”
The current RMV software was designed 27 years ago, and has only had minor updates since. Registry staff are faced with rows and columns of nearly incomprehensible abbreviations and acronyms, toggling between different pages and databases to jump from license records to vehicle registrations in a process that few find intuitive.
They joke that a person must have a PhD in the system to perform a basic search.
“Our system is very reliable, it’s very robust, it’s very quick, and we love it — but it’s old,” said Colleen Ogilvie, deputy registrar, who has worked with the RMV for 24 years.
Instead of housing driver and vehicle information under different databases, the new software will integrate the two pools of data, so Massachusetts residents’ license information and driving citations will be linked with their vehicle registration and parking tickets.
For registry staff, the new system will make it much easier to track down information and provide it to customers.
But for drivers, the new system will allow more transactions online. Kaprielian’s goal is to dramatically decrease the number of people who visit registry branches, instead steering them to the Internet. That will, of course, cut labor costs, she said, but it’s also what customers tell her they want. Someday, she envisions, the dreadful waits that give the RMV a bad rap will be a thing of the past.
“If they’re under 35, they may never visit a branch,” Kaprielian said recently.
State Senator Richard T. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat, said he was pleased with the RMV’s project to improve online service, but remained concerned about plans to close some branches.
“There’s still a reasonable portion of the population that does not use computers,” Moore said. “There still need to be options other than online.”
Changes will start soon: As soon as next year, the state’s 4.7 million licensed drivers will be able to sign up to get reminders by text message, e-mail, or phone that their driver’s license needs to be renewed.
Soon after that, people will be able to go online to check their license information and outstanding citations, and eventually, vehicle registration information.
And in the much longer term, there are other possibilities, Kaprielian said. The registry may be able one day to use facial recognition technology, so people can upload new license photos onto their RMV account, which can then be verified by a computer and printed onto a license sent to a driver in the mail.
Ian Grossman, vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said the changes Massachusetts is making are part of a national push to transition to cutting edge technology — and someday, he said, that may include digital driver’s licenses that live on drivers’ smartphones, a goal that Kaprielian says she has eyed for Massachusetts.
“Is there a way you can carry that credential on a smartphone device, rather than carrying it on a piece of plastic in your pocket?” Grossman said.
Modernization now, he said, will help the state prepare for that day.Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @martinepowers.