Ford seeks patent to repossess a car remotely -- by locking owners out of their cars and cutting off AC
By Claudia Assis
Ford Motor Co. has applied for a patent to make remote car repossessions nearly seamless for lenders, and deeply unpleasant for car owners in default
Ford Motor Co. has applied for a patent to make remote car repossessions nearly seamless for lenders -- and deeply unpleasant for car owners in default, who may endure an "incessant" sound, sweat out disabled air conditioning, and eventually get locked out of their car.
The patent application, published in late February, envisions a repo Big Brother that would unleash a series of inconveniences, some surprisingly crafty, to prompt owners to pay overdue bills -- or, in an autonomous-vehicle future, a driverless trip to the repo yard or junkyard.
Ford (F), which last year derived about 6% of its $158 billion revenue from lending unit Ford Credit, said through a spokesperson it has no intention of rolling out the system anytime soon.
There's no denying, however, that rising interest rates, higher car prices, lengthier and higher car payments, and rising repossession rates are part of what make patents like these imaginable.
'Additional level of discomfort'
The patent described steps to trigger if an owner ignores overdue notices, starting with those meant to cause "an additional level of discomfort to a driver and occupants of the vehicle" by disabling nice-to-have features like air conditioner, remote key fobs, and the automated door lock-and-unlock system.
Another step described in the remote-repo patent application included prompting the car's audio system to "emit an incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle."
The repo system would control various ways "to make the sound unpleasant," and ensure that the owner could not "turn it off without first making contact with the lending institution."
Final steps could include a complete lockout, and if that still doesn't work, a 1916 invention -- the tow truck -- would be called remotely. The vehicle could be prompted to move and park itself in a better spot for the tow truck.
A future fully autonomous vehicle could dispense with all that and drive itself to the repo yard, or to the junkyard if the system calculates that repo costs exceed the value of the car.
As dystopian as it may seem, the Ford patent application does offer the thought that perhaps some of its last-resort measures, such as the lockout, could happen on weekends only, or allow for limited use of the vehicle within of a geofenced area not far from the owner's home.
The repo proceedings could also be lifted temporarily to allow drivers to reach a hospital in a case of emergencies, the patent application said.
Automobile manufacturers such as Ford typically file thousands of patent applications a year.
According to the company, Ford was granted 1,342 patents last year.
"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," the spokesperson said.
Once published, the patent applications usually go through several rounds of requests for clarification and more information before they are approved or denied.
If a patent is granted, the inventor has the right to decide who gets to use the technology for decades. It's not uncommon for companies to hold the intellectual property just to have it, or to prevent competitors from having it.
The Ford application is short on technical information, and long on creativity. But its spirit is not completely novel.
Some means of remotely disabling a car in order to repossess it have been around for decades. Reviled "kill switches," or starter-interrupt devices, accompanied by GPS trackers, have been used by some lenders, usually in the context of buyers with spotty credit.
Consumer-protection regulators recently said they want to gather information on that and other aspects of the opaque car-lending and repo businesses, including the starter-interrupt devices.
Over the years, industry observers have said the "kill switches," however despised and in the crosshairs of regulation, are perhaps a better alternative than spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on retrieving a car from impoundment.
Americans have been willing to overextend themselves to get bigger, better and newer cars for decades, and an era of low interest rates only provided more fuel to that fire.
According to Edmunds, the average car payment in January was $728, nearly 50% higher than an average of $491 in January 2015. Cars have become increasingly more expensive as their systems become more complex, filled with safety and infotainment features, and the vehicles themselves are larger and heavier.
U.S. automobile makers, conforming to customer tastes, have focused on SUVs and pickup trucks that often are substantially more expensive than sedans. New-vehicle options under $20,000 are few and far between.
Last year, General Motors Co.'s (GM) Chevrolet division discontinued production of its Chevy Spark, one of the last remaining new cars under $15,000 available to consumers.
Wall Street this week faulted Tesla Inc. (TSLA) for failing to provide details of a future electric vehicle that would cost less than the $40,000 Tesla charges for its cheapest EV.
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March 06, 2023 08:30 ET (13:30 GMT)
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