Ford files patent to allow self-driving cars to drive away from owners who don't keep up with payments

A lot of Ford cars parked together.
(Image credit: Bloomberg via Getty)

Cars with electronics are nothing new but, as advanced tech like AI and 'always connected' systems begin to be integrated into vehicles, we're beginning to see the automotive industry look at how far it can push this stuff. The most egregious recent example has been BMW's attempts to nickel-and-dime customers of its expensive cars with microtransactions (which has rather brilliantly led to car owners pirating their own vehicles' features), but now the Ford Motor Company says hold my beer.

Ford applied for a US patent in August 2021 which was published last week on February 23 (thanks, TheDrive). It's called "Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle" and goes into detail on a proposed system that would allow Ford, in circumstances where customers are behind on payments, to gradually crimp the car's functionality and make the owner's life unpleasant before, in extreme scenarios, the car just… drives itself away to a repossession lot or a dump.

Yes: In the future, if Ford says so, you may well see your car just take off.

The patent says that the system will implement an escalating series of steps, and we're about to get a little dystopian here. If an owner begins to miss payments on their car, Ford's system will begin to disable "functionality of one or more components of the vehicle" which includes almost everything from window controls to the god damn engine. 

"Every time the owner is in the vehicle" the system can begin to play an "incessant and unpleasant sound"

The vehicle will warn its owner in stages and strip-back functionality before driving away. Initially the system will target minor features like "cruise control, automated window controls, automated seat controls, and some components of the infotainment system (radio, global positioning system (GPS), MP3 player, etc.)" If the owner still doesn't pony up the dough, then the car will begin to shut off air conditioning, remote key functionality, and automated locking.

This one deserves a paragraph all its own. If you've reached this stage, then "every time the owner is in the vehicle" the system can begin to play an "incessant and unpleasant sound". Of all the absurd ideas in all the automotive industry at the moment, doing that to someone who's presumably trying to drive a car may be the most ridiculous and, if ever implemented, is surely going to cause accidents.

What, the noise didn't put you off? Time to lock you out of your car then sonny. "The repossession system computer may disable the door lock mechanism," reads the patent, "thereby placing the vehicle in a lockout condition and preventing a person from entering a cabin of the vehicle." Apparently it will do this only on weekends initially, and will include functionality to allow use in emergency situations such as, Ford says, a heart attack. Apparently the vehicle's camera and software will be able to detect this. So if you're locked out, just fake a heart attack I guess. What's it gonna do, take your pulse? (Don't get any ideas Mr. Ford).

So by this stage your car's been stripped of most functionality by the manufacturer, you've survived the noises, you've been locked out and pretended to die to get back in and if you still don't make payments then this is where our good friend AI comes in for the actual repossession. Any Ford vehicle with autonomous driving capabilities will be capable of "[moving] the vehicle from a first spot to a second spot that is more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle [or moving] the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a location such as, for example, the premises of the repossession agency."

And if the repossession agency says the car isn't worth the cost of the repossession, then it'll drive itself straight to the junkyard (which feels like a Pixar movie waiting to happen).

Even though this is truly the devil's work, there are some necessary caveats here. This system might be hellish, but it's also only proposed for use on people who miss payments. Thing is that peoples' circumstances change, and stuff like car payments may need re-negotiating, which feels like something that should be done through human agency rather than your car turning off the aircon.

The second thing is that this is a patent. It shows intention, but no Ford car currently has this system installed (unless it's in some Ford research lab, which come to think of it…). The patent goes into enough detail that Ford clearly has done a lot of work on it, though, and companies like this don't pour R&D money into such systems without intending to eventually make use of them.

The nightmare scenario is that future cars come with an in-built dealer trying to upsell you on in-built features and, if you fall behind on payments, repossess themselves. Ford is currently the only car company to have suggested such a system, nevermind try to patent it, so this may not happen but… something tells me that executives and shareholders at car companies are going to like this very much. Welcome to the future of vehicle ownership: First your own car drives you to distraction then, one night, it drives itself away.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."