To avoid 'confrontation,' Ford applies for patent on self-repossessing vehicle technology
DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. has applied for a patent on a system designed to try and get people to clear up late car payments that, when all else fails, could lead to cars driving themselves to repo lots.
A patent application from Ford Global Technologies was filed with the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office on Aug. 20, 2021, and formally published Feb. 23 for public review as part of the official process.
The patent is pending, not yet granted, Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood confirmed to the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, on Wednesday.
The patent application describes new "systems and methods to repossess a vehicle." Inventors are listed as Anthony Maraldo, Brendan Diamond, Keith Weston and Michael Alan Mcnees, all Ford engineers.
They describe in the patent application a range of possibilities that include the car driving itself off private property to be picked up by a tow truck or taking it to a junkyard if the value is too low based on mileage and other factors.
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The patent application outlines a series of strategies to resolve nonpayment. Those include:
Sending reminder messages and a warning from banks or lending institutions to the owner's smartphone or vehicle display screen.
After days or weeks, the strategy could evolve to include audio that makes an "unpleasant" sound to get the owner to contact the lender about arranging payment.
Then the car may disable features such as window or seat controls, GPS or radio dials to "cause discomfort," the patent said.
The pages of the patent application spelled out in great detail how the design and embedded software may be used and noted that it's "preferable not to provoke an undesirable confrontation."
Will it or won't it be used?
The patent also spells out ways that delinquent owners can keep their vehicle while working toward payment, such as locking the vehicle on weekends only so that the driver can still access a job or geofencing the vehicle's range.
"The first thing to know is that if your vehicle is connected to the internet in any way, this system could theoretically work on it. The application likewise describes a 'repossession computer' that could be installed on future cars to make this system function smoothly, but it also states no extra hardware necessarily needs to be installed on the vehicle for it to function," said thedrive.com, which first reported the news Monday. "Basically, if your car has an infotainment system already set up to receive something like over-the-air updates, this could probably work without physical modifications."
The Dearborn automaker declined to comment on whether the company plans to implement the idea for a new software system in any of its vehicles through factory installation or over-the-air updates.
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The new system has not been installed in current Ford products, and the company cannot discuss future plans, Sherwood told the Free Press on Wednesday.
"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," he said.
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While Ford owns a financing entity known as Ford Credit, the 2022 Ford corporate earnings presentation actually showed a steady decline in repossessions from 2018 through 2022.
However, consumer trends show banks and other lending institutions may be looking to get more aggressive.
In December, NBC News reported consumers were falling behind on car payments. A month later, Bloomberg reported, "Americans fell behind on car payments at a higher rate than in 2009. Automobile repossessions climbing ..."
Years ago, Mel Farr, a Detroit Lions running back who retired in 1974 and bought his first Ford dealership in 1975 and went on to run an automotive empire, made headlines for using a device to disable vehicles he leased out when customers failed to make timely payments. According to a Free Press article in 2000, lawyers for 1,550 customers agreed to drop a class action lawsuit against Mel Farr Automotive Group over the engine disabling device in exchange for $200 in coupons for car services at the dealership.
Farr was willing to work with customers with bad credit and did so with high interest rates, but some customers alleged their cars shut down while they were driving. He died at age 70 in 2015
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford patent: Repossession could be fully remote with new tech