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A prospective Ford technology would allow the company to remotely shut down features and otherwise lock down vehicles whose owners don’t make their car payments.

The patent, filed in August 2021, was published on Feb. 23, 2023 as part of the application process. The repossession system computer for cars has yet to receive final approval for patent protection.

In the patent, examples are provided suggesting how the technology might work if it were implemented; any car that can connect to WiFi would potentially be viable for use of the repossession computer.

A financial institution could, after notifying an owner of delinquency on payments and not receiving a response, use its computer to notify the vehicle’s computer, either shutting off a car feature or locking out the driver entirely.

A carveout in the lockdown protocol would also be put in place, allowing temporary use of the vehicle in case of emergency.

Repossession computers could also be configured to connect with law enforcement and medical facilities, giving them the ability to stop some car features or shut down the vehicle as well.

Affected features in cars with onboard computers run the gamut. In the patent, Ford classifies car features based on how necessary they are to drive the vehicle. Essential car parts include the engine, brakes, accelerator, doors, and the head and tail lights.

Optional components that could be disabled first include the air conditioning, radio and GPS, the music player, automated window and seat controls, and the automatic door locking and unlocking system.

Another measure that lenders would be able to implement to make late-paying drivers uncomfortable is an incessant, loud beeping, which the driver would not be able to stop (as opposed to, for example, a seatbelt alarm.)

In the case of autonomous vehicles, the car could also be controlled remotely and moved elsewhere, including the premises of a repossession agency or a third-party location more accessible to a traditional tow truck. Autonomous vehicles that are not worth repossessing could be made to drive themselves to junkyards.

While car owners default on payments for many reasons, Ford said things can get ugly as lenders go from potentially ignored notices to more escalatory steps.

“After additional warnings, the lender may repossess the vehicle. Typically, the owner is uncooperative at this time and may attempt to impede the repossession operation. In some cases, this can lead to confrontation,” Ford writes in the patent.

Ford has said it does not plan to actually install the technology in cars anytime soon.

“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 spokesperson Wes Sherwood told Bloomberg.

Consumer advocates, on the other hand, are alarmed.

“It really seems like you’re opening up a can of worms that, as a manufacturer, you don’t really need to be doing,” John Van Alst, a senior attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, told Bloomberg.

Mr. Van Alst further likened the remotely implemented technology to the Soviet doomsday device in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie “Dr. Strangelove,” a giant bomb that automatically went off as soon as it detected incoming missiles. 

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