Car manufacturer Ford wants to give its vehicles the ability to repossess themselves if the owner stops repayments in what is an unexpected potential use-case for self-driving technology.
In a US patent published last week, Ford suggested cars could have a “repossession system computer” to go alongside the hardware that runs the car and its entertainment systems.
This dedicated repossession computer would talk to servers at car dealerships, banks, and rental agencies to co-ordinate possible action if payments haven’t been made.
A “multi-step repossession procedure” would be triggered after sufficient notices have been sent out and not responded to.
This would first involve disabling “a functionality of one or more components of the vehicle”.
The patent puts these functionalities into three categories: primary-use components (engine, brake, accelerator, steering wheel, doors, lights), first level-optional use (radio, GPS, music player), and second level optional-use (air conditioning, the key fob).
Gradually, the computer would work its way up this chain of components if the owner fails to make repayments – disabling the radio, then the air conditioning, before eventually shutting off the engine and entering a “lockout”.
An alternative scenario might see the radio emit “an incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle” to nudge the person toward paying their bill.
If these annoying first measures don't get a person to make their repayments, then the car would enter a “lockout condition” which could be controlled to limit when and where the person could drive their car.
Perhaps the car would only be locked out during weekends, the patent suggests, because letting people still drive their car during the week “avoids adversely affecting a livelihood of the owner of the vehicle and hampering the owner’s ability to make payments towards the vehicle”.
Not to be too cruel a system designed to lock people out of their car during times of hardship, it could be designed to only work within a certain perimeter, or geofence, to still let them go to work, pick up their child from school, or buy groceries.
And in case of emergency, a person may be able to call the car company and have the lockout lifted to drive to the hospital.
Should these measures not be annoying enough to get people paying their bills, the car may even be impounded or repossessed – which some cars might be able to do on their own.
A semi-autonomous vehicle might be kind enough to move itself to a spot “that is more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle”.
But with autonomous vehicles, the repossession could be entirely automated with a newly repossessed car driving itself to a repossession agency, the dealership, or anywhere else appropriate.
The patent theorises that the car’s onboard computer could check the market value of the car and cross-check it with the associated costs of repossession – like storing and re-sale – potentially deciding to drive itself to a junkyard.
Car manufacturers like Ford are looking for new ways to lock people out of different in-built features of their vehicles, instead putting them behind subscription paywalls.
Mercedes added a $1775 (US$1,200) yearly optional “acceleration increase” feature to its line of electric vehicles, while BMW put heated seats behind a monthly subscription fee.
This newfound obsession with microtransactions led to a strange incident in the US last month when Volkswagen refused to give police location data about a stolen car unless the owner paid a $220 (US$150) fee to reactivate tracking.
A two-year-old child was stuck inside with a thief at the time.
Volkswagen said in a statement it has a “procedure in place” with the third-party provider of its car tracking service but that in this case there was “a serious breach of the process”.