Car companies often talk about autonomous vehicles as an avenue towards increased freedom—enabling more people to access roadways and giving drivers back their time and attention. But at least one auto giant is considering alternate (and darker) uses of still-elusive self-driving technology.
Ford has filed a patent for theoretical tech that would, among other things, allow its vehicles to repossess themselves if a driver falls behind on car payments. In Ford’s version of the future, delinquent customers’ cars could drive themselves back to a dealership (or to an impound lot or even a scrap yard) if the owner fails to pay up in time. Unfortunately, this is not joke.
The U.S. Patent Office published the company’s application last Thursday, February—about 1.5 years after Ford first filed it. The patent, titled “Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle,” hasn’t been officially granted (yet), but is nonetheless an unsettling peek into an alternate universe where private companies have even more of a say over our day-to-day lives.
In the automaker’s dystopian, proposed and patented version of reality, a couple skipped car payments would trigger a cycle of in-car consequences—or a “multi-step repossession procedure,” as it’s called in the document. First, an owner behind on their loan would get a notice of delinquency, sent via their infotainment system screen. If the driver fails to respond to that notice, there would be a second one. Then, your Ford personal vehicle would slowly transform into a version of hell.
The company proposes varied early punishments for delinquent car owners—for instance, a vehicle that could disable its own air conditioning, automated key, GPS, or music system. Another idea Ford floats in the patent filing is “activating an audio component in the vehicle... to emit an incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle.” Which seems incredibly unsafe!
If the horrible noise and/or minimized functionality and comfort doesn’t entice a car owner to cough up the money, the repo process would then progress to locking a driver out of their vehicle. Ford notes that this “lockout condition” could be variably enforced—potentially allowing people to access their vehicles in a medical emergency (via a complicated system of user monitoring) or still get back and forth to work by only restricting travel outside of certain zones or times. Why, you might ask? Because Ford cares—about getting its money. “Allowing the use of the vehicle during weekdays avoids adversely affecting a livelihood of the owner of the vehicle and hampering the owner’s ability to make payments,” the company wrote.
And still, if the lockout doesn’t work, Ford has filed to patent tech that would allow its vehicles to self-repo. The company proposes versions of this idea that could work with both semi-autonomous and fully autonomous cars. In the former, the vehicle would move a short distance to be more easily towed away by a repo company. In the latter, the car would drive itself all the way back to the dealership it was purchased from, or to a nearby impound lot or scrap yard—depending on the vehicles’ value. The company also includes safeguards against owner defenses (i.e. locking the vehicle in a closed garage) that would automatically notify the police.
So, just to recap, in a possible future reality, a Ford car could lock you out, cut off your AC, produce terrible sounds, take itself to get junked for parts if you miss enough payments, and call the cops on you.
This is not the only absurd patent Ford has filed for its vehicles. In a 2018 filing, the company outlined a proposal for an autonomous police car that uses AI to more effectively hide from and catch “violators of traffic laws.” The automaker has also patented a bonkers movie screen windshield in preparation for a far-off future where people no longer need to watch the road in front of them. Also, the company has filed patents to bring billboards inside your car and build vehicles with detachable motorcycles.
To be fair: Ford, and many companies, do this sort of thing a lot. It doesn’t necessarily mean the automaker actually plans to put any of this tech into play. However, the self-repo-ing car proposal sounds uniquely lame. And the company has clearly put a lot of time, thought, and detail into the 14-page application that includes schematics and explanations of how this self-repossessing vehicle’s internet connectivity would work—for maximum effectiveness.
“We submit patents on new inventions as a normal course of business but they aren’t necessarily an indication of new business or product plans,” said Ford spokesperson, Wes Sherwood, to Gizmodo via email. The company did not respond to questions about if any aspects of this newly patented technology are in development.
Notably, much of the system proposed in Ford’s recent patent application would be dependent upon vehicles much more autonomous than what the company currently has. Although Ford previously said it was aiming to build the biggest self-driving car fleet in the world, the company announced it was abandoning its goal of fully self-driving cars in October 2022.