Ford Applies to Patent Self-Repossessing Cars That Can Drive Themselves Away
Alternatively, the car could drive itself to a junkyard if it costs too much to repossess it. Yes, really.
Average car payments have been rising for a while. Although auto loan delinquency rates have been down since the height of the pandemic, Ford applied for a patent to make the repossession process go smoother. For the bank, that is.
The patent document was submitted to the United States Patent Office in August 2021 but it was formally published Feb. 23. It's titled "Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle." It describes several ways to make the life of somebody who has missed several car payments harder.
It explicitly says the system, which could be installed on any future vehicle in the automaker's lineup with a data connection would be capable of "[disabling] a functionality of one or more components of the vehicle." Everything from the engine to the air conditioning. For vehicles with autonomous or semi-autonomous driving capability, the system could "move the vehicle from a first spot to a second spot that is more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle... move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a location such as, for example, the premises of the repossession agency," or, if the lending institution considers the "financial viability of executing a repossession procedure" to be unjustifiable, the vehicle could drive itself to the junkyard.
No other automakers have recently attempted to patent a similar system, and indeed the Ford patent doesn't reference any other legal document for the sake of clarifying its idea. All of this being said, patent documents, especially applications like this one, do not necessarily represent an automaker's intent to introduce the described feature, process, or technology to its vehicles. Ford might just be attempting to protect this idea for the sake of doing so. The document does go into a lot of detail as to how such a system might work, though.
The first thing to know is that if your vehicle is connected to the internet in any way, this system could theoretically work on it. The application likewise describes a "repossession computer" that could be installed on future cars to make this system function smoothly, but it also states no extra hardware necessarily needs to be installed on the vehicle for it to function. "In some embodiments, the vehicle computer may be configured to perform some, or all, functions of the repossession system computer." Basically, if your car has an infotainment system already set up to receive something like over-the-air updates, this could probably work without physical modifications.
There would be several warnings from the vehicle before the system initiated a formal repossession. If these warnings were ignored, the car could begin to lose functionality ahead of a repo. The first lost functions would be minor inconveniences like "cruise control, automated window controls, automated seat controls, and some components of the infotainment system (radio, global positioning system (GPS), MP3 player, etc.)" The next level is more serious, and includes the loss of things like "the air conditioning system, a remote key fob, and an automated door lock/unlock system." Likewise, an "incessant and unpleasant sound" may be turned on "every time the owner is present in the vehicle."
If all of that is endured by the car's owner and payment still has not been received, they could get locked out of their car. The patent application states that "the repossession system computer may disable the door lock mechanism, thereby placing the vehicle in a lockout condition and preventing a person from entering a cabin of the vehicle." There are several caveats to go with this, such as locking out the owner only on weekends or allowing for vehicle use in emergency situations. Indeed, the patent explicitly notes that if somebody is suffering from something like a heart attack—it uses the heart attack situation several times in the document—then the car could be unlocked. It says the vehicle's onboard camera could be used alongside a "neural network" to determine if the emergency situation is legitimate.
A repo will still eventually take place, though, and this is where it's explained that autonomous or semi-autonomous cars might make this process easier for the bank. First of all, it says the vehicle will use its onboard sensors to detect whether or not it's in a garage. If it isn't, then the car could, without the owner being aware, repossess itself or drive somewhere nearby to avoid a confrontation with the repossessor. I will quote Ford's patent document explicitly for the sake of clarity here:
"In some cases, the vehicle can be a semi-autonomous vehicle and the repossession system computer may cooperate with the vehicle computer in the semi-autonomous vehicle to autonomously move the vehicle from a first spot to a second spot that is more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle. The first spot may, for example, be located inside the property line of the owner (a garage or a driveway, for example) and the second spot may be outside the property line (a public road, for example).
In some other cases, the vehicle can be an autonomous vehicle and the repossession system computer may cooperate with the vehicle computer to autonomously move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a location such as, for example, the premises of the repossession agency, the premises of the lending institution, an impound pound, or any other pre-designated location."
Here's where the junkyard comes into play. To paraphrase, the market value of the vehicle will be identified by the lending institution based on mileage, condition, and/or certain costs associated with repossession (towing, storage, re-sale proceedings etc.). If it will cost the bank more to repo the vehicle as compared to what it could sell it for, then "the repossession system computer may cooperate with the vehicle computer to autonomously move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a junkyard."
The fact that Ford envisions autonomous cars will one day be worth so little that driving themselves to a scrapyard makes financial sense might hint at the nature of this patent. It may not be something the automaker plans to actually develop any time soon. That being said, the fact that Ford has any level of interest in this sort of thing, whether it's just for the sake of protecting an idea or not, is concerning. The thought of your autonomous car driving away because you missed a payment isn't a pleasant one, and keep in mind Ford also mentions "semi-autonomous" cars as potentially being capable of supporting a system like this. Its current "Blue Cruise" hands-free driving system could very well be "semi-autonomous."
As previously mentioned, Ford is the only automaker to attempt to patent something like this. Making repossessions go smoother for banks is not officially at the front of other car companies' minds. Let's hope, for the sake of anybody who has ever missed a few car payments, it stays that way.
Got a tip? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org