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Ford’s self-repossessing car patent is a nightmare of the connected-car future

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The electric and digital transformation of the car industry comes with a lot of promises for a better tomorrow. Electric vehicles could dramatically reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector; connected cars will give us access to services and features we don’t currently enjoy; over-the-air software updates could eliminate high repair costs; and automated vehicles may make driving significantly safer.

But it’s worth remembering that, at the end of the day, car companies are just out to make a buck, not make the world a better place.

This week, it was revealed that Ford applied for a patent on a system that would use connected car technology to better aid in vehicle repossession. News of the patent’s publication was first reported by The Drive this week (which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a publication where I previously served as editorial director), and it describes a variety of procedures around repo-ing cars when payments are delinquent.

Those include sending messages to the owner’s smartphone or the vehicle itself, locking drivers out entirely, disabling functions like air conditioning, geofencing drivers to only operate within a certain time or set area so they can still get to work, and in one especially harrowing example, enabling an autonomous car to just drive itself to an impound lot — or a junkyard if the car’s market value is determined to be below a certain threshold.

Someone at Ford put a lot of thought into all of this.

The patent document describes dozens of ways to remotely and electronically revolutionize the entire repossession process, including liaising directly with lending institutions and police.

 Image: Ford

Currently, that process is a lot more low-tech, but it’s still infamously predatory and lacking in oversight. In states like California and New York, repossession can occur if an owner is even a few weeks behind on payments, and creditors aren’t even required to notify drivers before it happens.

An owner’s rights in this situation depend on what state they live in and what’s in their loan agreement.

Whether car owners can even reinstate their loans by getting the balance current depends on what’s in their loan agreement, and their right to do so varies from state to state. If they cannot get their car back, it could be swiftly sold at auction.

In recent years, there’s been a rise in the use of electronic transponders on cars financed via subprime loans. Those devices put lower-income or bad-credit buyers at risk of having their vehicles remotely disabled if they’re behind on payments.

Ford’s patent, however, takes this idea to a galaxy-brain level, concocting multiple scenarios where connected vehicle data and autonomy can be used to immediately retrieve vehicles if owners slip up.

The knee-jerk reaction to all of this is “Make your car payments on time.” And that’s certainly true, but no deep introspection is needed to realize people fall behind on payments and other bills all of the time and for all sorts of reasons. Those include sudden job loss, unexpected medical costs, personal emergencies, or losing a partner or family member who was contributing to payments. Nobody wants to get their car repossessed, after all.

Ford self-repossessing car patent by ahawkins8223 on Scribd

But this Ford patent represents a kind of nightmare scenario for the connected-car future, one where the automobile — long a symbol of personal freedom and still advertised as such — comes with a lot more external software-driven control over where we go, what we do, and how we do it. Just as automakers want you to subscribe to features you once got upfront, like heated seats, or seek restrictions on whether you have the right to repair your vehicle or not, the new era of cars will undoubtedly come with a great deal more strings attached.

The repossession patent is especially galling when you consider the state of the car market in recent years.

Cars are more expensive than ever, and people are having a harder time paying for them than ever, a trend that was happening even before the pandemic put a supply chain crunch on the market. By the end of last year, the average new car in America cost a record-high $49,507, according to Kelley Blue Book. This new crop of EVs — which would undoubtedly be the first to feature such technologies — are even more expensive at around $61,448 per vehicle.

Automakers have spent years pushing buyers into more expensive trucks, SUVs, and crossovers and eliminating smaller cars from their lineups in order to take advantage of those vehicles’ higher profit margins. The result has been longer loan terms, a rise in negative equity “rolled over” from past car loans, and more total car debt than ever. Just this week, Fortune reported America is now seeing its highest “severe delinquency” rate since 2006 as high interest rates and skyrocketing prices put a squeeze on people’s budgets. Used car prices are even more out of whack.

Finally, car companies may have taken the worst lessons from the car shortages of the pandemic. The result has been cases like General Motors hitting pause on the production of its most popular trucks to “maintain optimal inventory levels,” leading to fears that supply could be kept artificially low in order to maintain sky-high prices.

The 2024 Ford Mustang has a new screen.Image: Ford

In other words, automakers and their dealers have spent years ramping up car prices or taking advantage of market conditions. Now they’re coming up with high-tech ways to hit owners back if they can’t pay up.

Naturally, this isn’t the kind of technology-related headline Ford wants. The automaker demurred in a statement published in various outlets, saying it has no plan to deploy this system. “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,” Ford said in a statement.

Even if you take Ford at face value there, this kind of thing absolutely can be done. In a world where automakers are actively fighting your ability to fix your own car, there’s no reason to believe they have consumers’ best interests in mind all of the time. And while connected car technology is still in its relative infancy, it is only a matter of time before those cars enter the used market or the tech spreads to cheaper vehicles.

So when we look at how car technology is advancing in the years to come, it’s worth drivers everywhere asking this: Who is all of this for, anyway? And is this next generation of cars going to save the planet and its people, or is it just going to save the auto industry?

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