New Ford patent suggests self-driving cars own themselves: NPR

A diagram included in a new Ford patent that shows a variety of futuristic ways to take away a car.

United States Patent and Trademark Office

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United States Patent and Trademark Office

A diagram included in a new Ford patent that shows a variety of futuristic ways to take away a car.

United States Patent and Trademark Office

Imagine it’s the near future and you’ve bought a new car with self-driving mode. But times get tough and you fall behind on your loan payments—then one day you find your car has driven itself to a repossession lot.

That’s the vision of a new Ford patent published last month that describes a variety of futuristic ways in which Ford vehicle systems could be controlled by a financial institution to help return a car.

The company told NPR that the company has no intention of implementing the ideas in the patent, which is one of hundreds of pending Ford patents published this year by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

“We don’t have any plans to implement this,” said Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman. “We file patents for new inventions as a normal business, but they are not necessarily indicative of new business or product plans.”

As repossession tactics have changed over time with the advent of social media and GPS technology, Ford’s patent shows how lenders can use smart car features to repossess vehicles from delinquent borrowers. This was previously reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Of the innovations described in the patent, titled “Systems and Methods for Impounding a Vehicle,” perhaps the most impressive is for self-driving cars.

A financial institution or repossession agency could “cooperate with the vehicle’s computer to autonomously move the vehicle from the owner’s premises to a location such as the repossession agency’s premises” or “the lending institution’s premises,” the patent states . The process can be fully automated.

The car could also call the police, the patent suggests — or, if the lender decides the car isn’t worth the cost of repossession, the self-driving car could drive itself to the junkyard.

Semi-autonomous vehicles, not up to the challenge of long-distance driving, could instead navigate short distances by themselves—from private property (“a garage or driveway, for example,” the patent suggests) to a nearby location “i.e. . more towable.”

Among the various ideas described in the patent is a gradual disabling of the smart car’s functions. Lenders may start by turning off “non-essential” car features – such as cruise control or a media player – in an attempt to cause a “certain level of discomfort” to the car’s driver.

If the owner is late with payments, the lender can disable the air conditioning or use the audio system to play “a continuous and unpleasant sound whenever the owner is present in the vehicle.”

As a last resort, the lender could disable the vehicle’s “engine, brake, accelerator, steering wheel, doors and lights,” the patent suggests, or simply lock the doors.

Other proposed features include limiting the geographic area in which a car can be driven and flashing messages from a lender on the car’s media screen.

Like many large corporations, Ford proactively applies for patents in large volumes. The repossession patent is one of 13 Ford patents published on Feb. 23 alone, and one of more than 350 published this year so far, according to a review of U.S. patent records.

Last year, the company received 1,342 patents “covering a wide range of ideas,” Sherwood said.

The company’s other recent patents cover a wide range of applications: powertrain operations, speech recognition, autonomous parking, redesign of tailgate fixtures and fuel inlets.

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