Sorry, repo man, in the future, cars might repossess themselves


You approach your car, groggy, awkwardly shifting your coffee and phone to one hand so you can fumble through your purse for your keys. But before you find them, the car starts. It backs itself out of the driveway, turns around, and drives away empty.

You forgot the car payment, didn’t you?

This minor dystopian vision is brought to you by Ford
and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

This is far from the weirdest automotive patent application

Automakers apply for patents all the time. We rarely bother to report their patent applications because many of them come to nothing.

Automakers aggressively patent ideas they never use.

holds a patent for a laser windshield cleaning system. Toyota
holds a patent for an in-car fragrance system that also can dispense tear gas for self-defense. Ford holds a patent for a conveyer belt to bring items from the trunk to the front seat.

Even companies that only think about building cars hold patents for them. Google
holds a patent for a hood sticky enough to immobilize a human being, meant as a safety device. If you hit a pedestrian with your car, they’d stick to the hood instead of bouncing off and getting a second set of injuries from hitting the road. But imagine washing it after a drive through Louisiana in bug season.

Read: Buying a car from the factory sounds expensive, but it can actually save you money. Here’s how to do it.

An idea doesn’t have to be particularly good to earn a patent. According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, “The five primary requirements for patentability are: (1) patentable subject matter, (2) utility, (3) novelty, (4) nonobviousness, and (5) enablement.” Carmakers routinely patent ideas they never execute.

An escalating series of problems

But, occasionally, we find a patent compelling enough to merit telling you about it.

Ford’s self-repossessing car, for instance.

Ford filed to patent the idea in August of 2021, but the patent office can be slow to publish applications. Ford’s patent documents emerged just last week.

It’s a simple enough idea. As cars grow more connected, automakers gain more control over them.

In the short run, Ford says, it could “disable a functionality of a component of the vehicle” or “place the vehicle in a lockout condition” over a missed payment. Late with your monthly bill? Ford could disable your engine until you pay it.

In the longer term, as self-driving cars become feasible, Ford says, cars could simply drive themselves away from owners who don’t pay.

That could mean driving to a “spot that is more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle” or even to “the premises of the repossession agency.”

Ford goes on to describe a more advanced system that would allow the car to “communicate with the computer of the lending institution” to measure its own resale value. The vehicle could account for mileage and damage.

If it finds its market value below a “pre-determined threshold price,” the car could commit suicide. That is, Ford says, it could “autonomously move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a junkyard.”

Plus: A $1,000 Car Payment Is a Lot. It’s Becoming a Lot More Common.

Dystopian, but probably rare

Here, we should point out that lenders aren’t anxious to repossess cars.

Repossession rates have been on the rise in recent months. But they fell so far during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that they remain below historical norms.

Lenders generally know they stand a better chance of making money by helping you resume payments than by repossessing the car and trying to sell it. So, they will often work with a borrower who falls behind. They may allow borrowers to pay just the interest on a loan or even pause payments briefly to let the borrower’s finances improve before resuming payments.

Also see: Tesla unlocks EV network. What’s next in push to make chargers ‘as easy as filling with gas’

If all this talk of automotive suicide and self-driving repossession confusing, don’t worry. Your future car will explain it all to you. Ford’s patent application includes a long series of verbal and written warnings the car could convey via its speakers and screens as a borrower falls behind.

This story originally ran on 




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