Dude, where's my Ford? Cars with unpaid bills may soon drive off and impound themselves

Self-driving technology could evolve into self-repossession if the carmaker's latest patent is anything to go by

Cars could lock their own doors, play annoying sounds or stop working on weekends if owners default on payments. Reuters
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Ford is envisioning a futuristic, if slightly frightening, way to address defaults on car payments. The American carmaker has filed a patent for an automated system to repossess its vehicles, allowing a car to lock its owners out and even drive itself back to a dealership, scrapyard or lot to be impounded.

Although payment defaults are not a new problem, Ford says owners are typically “uncooperative” and “may attempt to impede the repossession”.

This, according to the document recently published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, is exactly what the car maker hopes to address. The patent application was filed in August 2021.

What can the system do?

The 14-page application describes in detail how a “repossession system computer” could facilitate the process, which may be initiated after "various efforts to resolve an issue have been exhausted”.

The process could take weeks before any actual repossession. During this period, several warnings will be issued to the owner, and if they are ignored, the car will begin to lose some of its features.

Automated seats and window controls, the music system and cruise control will be first to go. If warnings remain ignored, the car will lose its air conditioning and self-disable its remote key fob.

To navigate snowy roads, Ford autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. Ford is testing driverless Fusion sedans in snowstorms at the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a 32-acre (13-hectare) faux neighborhood for robot cars on the Ann Arbor school’s North Campus. Courtesy Ford Motor Co. *** Local Caption ***  bz14fe-world-feat-main-02.jpg

The goal, Ford says, is to cause a level of discomfort to the driver and occupants of the car, and hopefully spur them to co-operate.

Aside from losing the optional features at this point of the repossession process, cars could also emit an “incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle”, which can't be turned off until the non-payment is addressed.

The cars could then start disabling doors, preventing a person from entering, with Ford getting more creative as time goes on. The lockout, for example, may only be enforced during weekends, to still allow the owner to head to work (if only to be better placed to catch up on payments).

Ford also mentions the use of geofencing to enforce the lockout. A virtual geographical boundary is drawn in this scenario, and the car can only be used within that area, which could include a neighbourhood supermarket or school.

The patent proposes the lockout will only be lifted when payment delinquency is addressed, otherwise the repossession proceeds with the final steps. While an agency will be directed to contact the owner to arrange the repossession, if a car is semi-autonomous the system will allow it to drive itself from the owner's driveway or garage to a public road, where “it's more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle”.

If the car is autonomous, the system will direct it to drive itself straight to a repossession agency, a lending institution or a vehicle impound lot.

However, if the car's market value doesn't reach a specific threshold, which the system could also detect, it will be directed to drive itself straight to a scrapyard.

Suffice to say, Ford's repossession strategy could be the driving force behind the next wave of fears about machines making jobs obsolete.

Updated: March 01, 2023, 4:02 PM