Cars

The Mystery Of Steve Jobs's Plateless Benz

If you ranked the things in life that Jobs seems perfectly content to ignore, licence plates would be up there with disabled parking spaces, three-piece suits and customer demands. The proof, as it were, is all over Flickr.

His 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG has been shot without proper attire more times than an HP marketing contractor.

The only thing more abundant than the photos are the myriad theories behind how Silicon Valley’s most notorious PL8 H8TR generates this special vehicular-code distortion field.

Some claim their absence is linked to certain privacy concessions. Others insist that overzealous fanboys swipe the roadster’s tags every time they’re mounted. These are usually these same folks who whisper of a special Back to the Future-style, state-issued barcode (it’s actually the vehicle identification number), secret agreements with a shadow branch of DMV (nope), and even a custom-built mechanised plate retractor (Steve: You build it, we’ll buy it. As usual.).

The reality? Less Bond, more Occam’s Razor. Yes, the man may pay an asston of taxes to the state every year, but even a fat bank account and wizardly charisma doesn’t guarantee him (or any other celebrity) special treatment when it comes to the California vehicle code. Just ask Kim Kardashian.

So how’s Jobs doing it? By playing the odds.

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“I don’t care who you are – Lindsay Lohan or Governor Schwarzenegger – you have to display a plate or risk being pulled over or cited,” says state DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza.

This was the line echoed by CHP officers, traffic lawyers and DMV officials again and again. Not only did a legal precedent prove elusive, no one was even able to drum up a theoretical case where a public citizen – regardless or stature, office or bank account size – could get away with non-display of plates.

“It simply wouldn’t happen,” says Mendoza of such an allowance.

Fine. But looking at nuances state law, traffic enforcement, and a few public records, the case of Steve Jobs’s perpetually missing plates becomes less mysterious.

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First, it should be noted that it actually is legal is the state of California to drive without a licence plate – for 90 days. Car dealerships generally have up to 30 days to file the necessary registration paperwork with the DMV when anyone buys a new or used car. Once received, those plates can take another 4-6 weeks to arrive at a person’s doorstep. Yes, in the interim you must display a temporary registration tag in front driver’s-side window, but it still grants you a degree of wiggle room.

Most local traffic enforcement officers admitted to being less than Bronsonian about singling out a car with no plates, using it more as an excuse to pull someone over if something else seemed suspicious.

“Normally, an officer will not pull over a car that looks new to check the registration,” notes Deputy Gregory Talyor of the Santa Clara Sherrif’s Office.

“Frankly, we have better things to do with our time,” says Cupertino Officer Sandra Powell.

Here’s the other thing: Even if you do get nabbed by the popo for failing to display your plates, the consequences are downright wimpy. While the fine can go up to $US65 (assuming everything else is in order and you don’t want to correct the infraction), in most cases, the worst you’ll get what’s known as a fix-it ticket. That’s essentially a $US10 slap on the wrist if you can later prove that you’ve remedied the offence.

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Public records only reinforce the fact the Jobs has absolutely no problems rolling plateless. A comprehensive search of traffic records in Santa Clara (where he lives) and other adjacent counties show the CEO has successfully avoided plate-related fines for the past four years. At least. Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and San Francisco county courts-all show no evidence that Jobs has ever been cited for not displaying a licence plate. Zilch.

In fact, Jobs has received only two citations since 2006, both for speeding in Santa Clara County. One of those was dismissed after completion of traffic school (Dollars to Pesos says he didn’t choose comedy school) and the other was paid outright. A third, more mysterious, traffic infraction is listed under Apple Inc in 2007 for lack of registration, but was later dismissed upon “evidence of correction.”

The one problem Jobs does seem to have with tickets involves his propensity to park in the Apple’s campus’ handicap spots. While no evidence of those turned up in public records searches, one officer says he’s visited the Cupertino campus numerous times answering complaints from employees about a certain Mercedes (conspicuously free of licence plates) parked in the disabled area.

Which is weird, because you’d think he’d have some crazy awesome, brushed aluminium parking spot on a dais or something.

Ironically, the AMG’s lack of a licence plate revealed the one solid bit of data we had to work with. His Benz’s VIN number. Show me the Carfax! OK: Purchased new (duh) in late 2006, the SL55 has approximately 35,000km on it as of the beginning of this month. That means Jobs drives, on average, 8851km per year – well under the 19,000km mean achieved by most Americans. Why is this important? Well, quite simply, it means Steve does not drive a lot-at least not in that car. And that lowers his odds of getting pulled over in it.

A round trip from his home in Palo Alto to the Cupertino campus is approximately 35km. And assuming he goes into the office 3-4 times a week, that would account for (at the very least) 5632km per year, probably much more; Jobs is a notorious workaholic and micromanager. (To be fair, he was sick and out of the state for a large chunk of last year.) And if he should need to make the 80-odd km hop from Apple to his other office at Pixar, there’s an app for that. It’s called a helicopter. That leaves a measly 3000 a year for random (staged) meetings with Eric Schmidt and quick runs to Yerba Buena or Moscone to deliver something magical.

For big events like these – which, given the car’s low mileage, are likely the longest road trips it takes – the company’s in-house security always works in close conjunction with police, who have to cordon off intersections and direct traffic to make sure that their keynote speaker isn’t held up by San Francisco’s notorious gridlock. In those cases, you can be sure that traffic officers know, and think differently, about hitting that silver Benz with a ticket.

The odd thing in Jobs’ case is that CEO platelessness is always done service of anonymity. As one former Apple security employee noted, the fact that it’s now common knowledge he doesn’t display a licence plate completely defeats any anonymous benefit Steve might reap from it. In his words, it “achieves the exact opposite of what any security manager would want.”

And this, in the end, is the great paradox of the mystery. Not displaying plates has made Jobs’ car just as conspicuous and identifiable as a man who, say, always wears a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers.

Of course, all of this leads to the even bigger and more puzzling why question. In a state where SL55s are a fairly common site, and where no personal information can be gleaned from a licence plate number, the act of putting a plate on would actually be the best avenue toward anonymity.

So maybe there’s some other reason Steve Jobs avoids rectangular metal objects with numbers on them-say, to gin up mystique or augment his persona?

In that case: Smart. Very smart.

Illustration by Chuck Anderson, and was inspired by a pic taken by Flickr user leoprieto. See Chuck’s work at www.nopattern.com and follow him on Twitter.

Photo credit lodev


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