Ford has been granted a patent for a system that allows a car to repossess itself if its owner fails to keep up with payments. The firm envisions the car driving itself back to the showroom – or to a scrapyard if the value of the car is low. But a security expert warns that the proposed system could instead be used to steal cars remotely.
The patent, which was filed in 2021 but granted only last week, describes how the system would kick in if the car owner failed to respond to messages informing them they were falling behind with payments. At that point, a series of measures would first be used to make the car unpleasant to drive, then impossible. Finally, as a last resort, the car would return itself to the showroom.
The system could begin by disabling features such as GPS navigation, the music system or the air conditioning, in order to create what the patent describes as a “certain level of discomfort” for the owner. If this doesn’t work, the patents suggests enabling the car to create an “incessant and unpleasant sound”, such as a chime or beep, every time the owner gets inside.
The next escalation would be to limit access to the car on certain days or at certain times, making it unusable for leisure at weekends, but allowing the owner to continue getting to work and therefore not harming their ability to eventually pay for the car. The patent also suggests using GPS to “geofence” certain areas in which the car would be unusable.
If all else fails, then the car could be instructed to drive itself to a location where a waiting tow-truck could pick it up, or even to drive itself all the way to a repossession storage area. If the mileage on the car is high and its condition is poor, then it could instead be instructed to drive itself straight to a scrapyard for recycling.
Such a system would, of course, require the car to be fully autonomous, which has been a persistent but elusive goal for car makers: it is no more possible to buy a truly self-driving car now than it was 15 years ago. Ford itself recently announced that it was giving up on its goal of developing full self-driving technology, at a cost of $2.7 billion.
Ford didn’t respond to a request for comment on the newly granted patent, but security expert Alan Woodward at the University of Surrey, UK, says that there would be security risks with such a system.
“It’ll be a brave vehicle manufacturer that builds this into their vehicle as standard,” he says. “I can imagine a car thief not just finding an unauthorised way into the system, but also socially engineering ‘authorised’ users to give them access.”