How to Detect and Recognize Car License Plates Using Python plate detection and recognition technology has many applications. It can be used in road systems, ticketless parking lots, vehicle access control residences, and more. This technology combines computer vision and Artificial Intelligence.

You will use Python to create a license plate detection and recognition program. The program will take the input image, process it to detect and recognize the license plate, and finally display the characters of the license plate as the output.

Setting Up the Python Environment

To comfortably follow through with this tutorial, you need to be familiar with Python basics. This starts with setting up the program’s environment.

Before you begin coding, you need to install some libraries in your environment. Open any Python IDE and create a Python file. Run each command on the terminal to install the respective library. You should have a prior installation of Python PIP on your computer.

What Tesseract OCR Is and How to Install It on Your Computer

Tesseract OCR is an engine that can recognize a language’s characters. You should install it on your computer before using the pytesseract library. To do so:

  1. Open any Chrome-based browser
  2. Download the Tesseract OCR setup
  3. Run the setup and install it like any other program

Having prepared the environment and installed tesseract OCR, you are ready to code the program.

1. Importing the Libraries

Begin by importing the libraries you installed in the environment. Importing the libraries allows you to call and use their functions in the project.

 import cv2
import imutils
import pytesseract

You need to import the OpenCV-Python library as cv2. Import the other libraries using the same names you used to install them.

2. Taking the Input

Then point pytesseract to the location where the Tesseract engine is installed. Take the car image as the input using the cv2.imread function. Replace the image name with the name of the image you are using. Store the image in the same folder as your project to keep things easy.

 pytesseract.pytesseract.tesseract_cmd = 'C:\\Program Files\\Tesseract-OCR\\tesseract.exe'
original_image = cv2.imread('image3.jpeg')

You can replace the following input image with the one you would like to use.

A blue car with a license plate

3. Preprocessing the Input

Resize the image width to 500 pixels. Then convert the image to grayscale as the canny edge detection function only works with grayscale images. Finally, call the bilateralFilter function to reduce the noise in the image.

 original_image = imutils.resize(original_image, width=500 )
gray_image = cv2.cvtColor(original_image, cv2.COLOR_BGR2GRAY)
gray_image = cv2.bilateralFilter(gray_image, 11, 17, 17)

4. Detecting the License Plate on the Input

Detecting the license plate is the process of determining the part on the car that has the characters of the license plate.

Performing Edge Detection

Begin by calling the cv2.Canny function which will automatically detect the edges on the preprocessed image.

 edged_image = cv2.Canny(gray_image, 30, 200)

It is from these edges that we will find the contours.

Finding the Contours

Call the cv2.findContours function and pass a copy of the edged image. This function will detect the contours. Draw around the detected contours on the original image using the cv2.drawContours function. Finally, output the original image with all the visible contours drawn.

 contours, new = cv2.findContours(edged_image.copy(), cv2.RETR_LIST, cv2.CHAIN_APPROX_SIMPLE)
img1 = original_image.copy()
cv2.drawContours(img1, contours, -1, (0, 255, 0), 3)
cv2.imshow("img1", img1)

The program draws all the contours that it finds on the car image distinctively.

A car with all visible contours marked green

After finding the contours you need to sort them to identify the best candidates.

Sorting the Contours

Sort the contours based on minimum area 30. Ignore the ones below that as they are less likely to be the license plate contour. Make a copy of the original image and draw the top 30 contours on the image. Finally, display the image.

 contours = sorted(contours, key = cv2.contourArea, reverse = True)[:30]

screenCnt = None
img2 = original_image.copy()

cv2.drawContours(img2, contours, -1, (0, 255, 0), 3)
cv2.imshow("img2", img2)

There are now fewer contours than there were at the beginning. The only contours drawn are the ones approximated to contain the license plate.

A car with the first thirty visible contours drawn

Finally, you need to loop over the sorted contours and determine which one is the number plate.

Looping Over the Top 30 Contours

Create a for loop to loop over the contours. Look for the contour with four corners, and determine its perimeter and coordinates. Store the image of the contour containing the license plate. Finally, draw the license plate contour on the original image and display it.

 count = 0
idx = 7

for c in contours:
    contour_perimeter = cv2.arcLength(c, True)
    approx = cv2.approxPolyDP(c, 0.018 * contour_perimeter, True)

    if len(approx) == 4:
        screenCnt = approx

        x, y, w, h = cv2.boundingRect(c)
        new_img = original_image [ y: y + h, x: x + w]

        idx += 1

cv2.drawContours(original_image , [screenCnt], -1, (0, 255, 0), 3)
cv2.imshow("detected license plate", original_image )

After looping, your program has identified the contour containing the license plate. It draws on the license plate contour only.

A car showing the detected license plate

5. Recognizing the Detected License Plate

Recognizing the number plate means reading the characters on the cropped image of the license plate. Load the license plate image you previously stored and display it. Then, call the pytesseract.image_to_string function and pass the cropped license plate image. This function converts the characters in the image to a string.

cropped_License_Plate = './7.png'
cv2.imshow("cropped license plate", cv2.imread(cropped_License_Plate))

text = pytesseract.image_to_string(cropped_License_Plate, lang='eng')

The cropped license plate is shown below. The characters on it will be the output you will later print on the screen.

A cropped license plate image

Having detected and recognized the license plate, you are ready to display the output.

6. Displaying the Output

This is the final step. You print the extracted text to the screen. This text contains the characters of the license plate.

 print("License plate is:", text)

The expected output of the program should be similar to the image below:

Three car pictures and one cropped license plate showing the process of detecting a license plate

The license plate text can be seen on the terminal.

Sharpen Your Python Skills

Detecting and recognizing car license plates in Python is an interesting project to work on. It is challenging, so it should help you to learn more about Python.

When it comes to programming, practice is core to the mastery of a language. To practice your skills, you need to work on interesting projects.