Mobility

Stranger danger? All it takes is a license plate number to text via Plext

See another driver that you'd like to talk to? With Plext, all you need is their license plate to send them a text message.

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Image: iStock/Slobo Mitic

I recently came across an interesting free mobile app called Plext, which permits communication between participating drivers. While you can obviously contact people you know whose information is already in your smartphone, Plext is geared towards allowing strangers to send notes to one another when the only identifying factor they have to work with is the license plate number on the vehicle involved.

"To what purpose?" you might ask. Particularly if you're already in a relationship and not considering this as a potential more-than-slightly stalkerish dating app.

There are a number of legitimate reasons to send a message to the owner of another car based on your interactions with them. Maybe you witnessed a parking lot scrape and the guilty party didn't leave a note so you'd like to report the incident to the victim. Perhaps someone in your apartment building complex has a flat tire and you want to be proactive and help point that out to them. Maybe you'd just like to say, "Thanks for stopping when my kid was crossing the street."

Trying it out

I decided to try out Plext, which offers a download for iOS or Android. I installed the Android version on my Samsung Galaxy S5 then fired it up.

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Image: Scott Matteson

I tapped "Create Account" which brought me to the next screen:

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Image: Scott Matteson

The app automatically identified my location as Massachusetts, so I entered my email address, the password I wanted to use, a handle (nickname) and my license plate number.

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Image: Scott Matteson

(Note: confidential details blocked out but you get the point).

I then tapped "Done."

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Image: Scott Matteson

The next screen prompted me to enter my mobile number to verify my account setup. Plext would send me a text with a verification code. I entered my number and tapped "Verify."

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Image: Scott Matteson

Almost immediately I got a text notification with the verification code. I provided that to the app and then I was in business. The main screen appeared.

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Image: Scott Matteson

As you can see, details are straightforward. There are options to communicate with other users, view or continue existing conversations, add, edit or remove plates and suggest the app to friends.

I decided to send my wife Wendy a message. I tapped "Text New Plate."

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Image: Scott Matteson

I entered Wendy's plate number and tapped "Start Chat."

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Image: Scott Matteson

I figured 16+ years of marriage merited a polite "Hi there," so I went ahead and sent that.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "How in the world is this message going to reach her if she doesn't have Plext?" Well, like I said previously, being a Plext user is a requisite for this scenario to work. So I set up a Plext account for my wife.

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Image: Scott Matteson

(Some details obfuscated but you get the point; I was able to create a second account for her within the mobile app right away). I then received the verification code for Wendy's account:

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Image: Scott Matteson

After verifying the code, I logged into her Plext account. I was then at the main Plext screen:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I tapped "Continue conversation" to see what pending messages were available.

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Image: Scott Matteson

I beheld the message I had just sent, shown in a traditional texting app screen, so I opened it up.

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Image: Scott Matteson

Not exactly Shakespeare or Whitman, but it got the job done. It was quick and easy to create my account, send a message to my wife's vehicle, then create her account based on that platen umber and view the message. I showed it to her later and she was dutifully impressed.

So, now I know what you're thinking, and you're thinking about one of the two big old elephants in the room I've avoided mentioning throughout this article: what happens if someone uses this to insult or threaten other drivers?

Yeah. It could happen. It probably will happen, in many urban areas. I live in the Greater Boston area and have done so virtually all of my adult life. We don't often contact other drivers to wish them "happy birthday" around here. Fortunately, Plext offers options on a per-conversation basis to keep it civil.

If you go back to the main messaging screen:

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Image: Scott Matteson

You can tap and hold your finger on any given message thread. The following box appears:

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Image: Scott Matteson

You can then delete the conversation, block the user, or report the user.

Plext also has a settings screen accessible by clicking the blue settings bar at the main window:

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Image: Scott Matteson

This is where you can configure some minor options, get help, share the experience with others (you can send information about Plext to others via text, social media and so forth) and logout.

And now we come to the other elephant in the room: what if the other driver isn't using Plext? Like the saying goes, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a noise?" We can translate that here to: "If a Plext user sends a message to someone's license plate and that person never accesses Plext to see it, does the message really exist?"

Therein lies the key. Plext offers downloadable cards which users can print out and leave on cars to urge them to try out the service and read their messages.

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Image: Scott Matteson

Honest impressions

I'm going to be blunt here and state that this concept is in the pilot phase. It will take a lot of effort to get Plext to the point where it becomes a commonly-used interactive mechanism. But it's an intriguing concept - especially as one who writes about mobility and has a background in communication - and Rome wasn't built in a day. Like any campfire, the more fuel it receives, the bigger it will grow.

Future updates will include international support, a Windows mobile version, instant handle availability checking, the ability to see if a plate has an account after sending the message, and text recognition via the camera. This last feature will allow users to take a picture of a license plate and Plext will then auto populate where the message is being sent so they won't have to manually entering plate numbers. They also plan to streamline the signup process by removing the need for an email address and password; users will only need their phone number and a plate number.

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About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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