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A new Ford patent imagines a future in which self-driving cars repossess themselves

A diagram included in a new Ford patent that imagines a variety of futuristic ways to repossess a car.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
A diagram included in a new Ford patent that imagines a variety of futuristic ways to repossess a car.

Imagine it's the near future, and you've bought a new car with a self-driving mode. But hard times hit and you fall behind on loan payments – then, one day you find your car has driven itself away to the repossession lot.

That's the vision of a new Ford patent published last month that describes a variety of futuristic ways that Ford vehicle systems could be controlled by a financial institution in order to aid in the repossession of a car.

The company told NPR that the company has no intention of implementing the ideas in the patent, which is one among hundreds of pending Ford patents published this year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"We don't have any plans to deploy this," said Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesperson. "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."

As repossession tactics have changed over time with the advent of social media and GPS technology, Ford's patent shows how lenders might wield smart car features to repossess vehicles from delinquent borrowers. It was previously reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Of the innovations described in the patent, titled "Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle," perhaps the most striking is about self-driving cars.

A financial institution or repossession agency could "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" or "the premises of the lending institution," the patent states. The process could be entirely automated.

The car could also call the police, the patent suggests – or, if the lender determines the car is not worth the cost of repossession, the self-driving car could drive itself to a junkyard.

Semi-autonomous vehicles that aren't up to the challenge of driving long distances could instead move themselves a short ways – from private property ("a garage or a driveway, for example," the patent suggests) to a nearby spot "that is more convenient for a tow truck."

Among the various ideas described in the patent is a gradual disabling of a smart car's features. Lenders could start by switching off "optional" features of the car – like cruise control or the media player – in an effort to cause "a certain level of discomfort" to the car's driver.

If the owner remains behind on payments, the lender could progress to disabling the air conditioner, or use the audio system to play "an incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle."

As a last resort, a lender could disable "the engine, the brake, the accelerator, the steering wheel, the doors, and the lights of the vehicle," the patent suggests, or simply lock the doors.

Other suggested features include limiting the geographic area in which a car can be operated and flashing messages from a lender on a car's media screen.

Like many large corporations, Ford proactively applies for patents in large volumes. The repossession patent was one of 13 Ford patents published on Feb. 23 alone, and one of more than 350 published this year to date, according to a review of U.S. patent records.

Last year, the company was granted 1,342 patents "spanning a wide range of ideas," Sherwood said.

The company's other recent patents cover a wide range of applications: powertrain operations, speech recognition, autonomous parking, redesigns of tailgate attachments and fuel inlets.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.