Cars with electronics are nothing new, but as advanced technology like artificial intelligence and “always connected” systems begin to be incorporated into vehicles, we’re starting to see the auto industry consider how far it can push this hardware. The most egregious recent example has been the efforts of BMW nickel and dime customers of her expensive cars (opens in new tab) with microtransactions (which led rather brilliantly to car owners hacking the features of their vehicles (opens in new tab)), but now the Ford Motor Company is saying hold my beer.
Ford filed for a US patent in August 2021, which was published last week on February 23 (thanks, TheDrive (opens in new tab)). It is said “Systems and Methods for Recovering a Vehicle” (opens in new tab) and delves into a proposed system that would allow Ford, in cases where customers fall behind on payments, to gradually reduce the car’s functionality and make the owner’s life miserable, before, in extreme scenarios, the car is simply… towed away to recovery lot or dump.
Yes: In the future, if Ford says so, you may well see your car take off.
The patent says the system will implement a escalating series of steps, and we’re about to get a little dystopian here. If an owner starts missing payments on their car, Ford’s system will begin disabling the “functionality of one or more components of the vehicle,” which includes almost everything from window controls to the stored engine.
The vehicle will gradually warn its owner and strip its function before driving away. Initially the system will target secondary features such as “cruise control, automated window controls, automated seat controls, and certain elements of the infotainment system (radio, global positioning system (GPS), MP3 player, etc.)” If the owner still If you raise the dough, the car will begin to turn off the air conditioning, remote control function and automatic locking.
That deserves a paragraph all by itself. If you have reached this stage, then “every time the owner is in the vehicle” the system may start playing a “continuous and unpleasant sound”. Of all the ridiculous ideas in the entire automotive industry right now, doing this to someone who is supposed to be trying to drive a car might be the most ridiculous and, if ever implemented, will certainly cause accidents.
What, the noise didn’t put you off? Time to lock you out of your car then my friend. “The recovery system computer can disable the door locking mechanism,” the patent states, “thereby placing the vehicle in a locked state and preventing a person from entering the vehicle cabin.” It will apparently only do this on weekends initially, and will include functionality to allow for use in emergencies such as, Ford says, a heart attack. Obviously the vehicle’s camera and software will be able to detect it. So if you get locked out, I guess just try to have a heart attack. What will he do, take your pulse? (You have no idea Mr. Ford).
So at this stage your car has been stripped of most functions by the manufacturer, you’ve survived the noises, locked yourself out and pretended to die to get back in and if you’re still not making payments then this is where The good AI friend comes for real recovery. Any Ford vehicle with self-driving capabilities will be able to “[moving] the vehicle from a first point to a second point that is more convenient for a trailer to tow the vehicle [or moving] the vehicle from the owner’s premises to a location such as, for example, the recovery agency’s premises’.
And if the repossessor says the car isn’t worth the cost of repossessing, then it’s headed straight to the junkyard (which sounds like a Pixar movie waiting to happen).
Although this is truly the work of the devil, there are some necessary caveats here. This system can be hellish, but it is also recommended for use only by people who miss payments. The thing is, people’s circumstances change and things like car payments may need renegotiating, which seems like something that should be done through HR instead of your car turning off the air conditioning.
The second is that it is a patent. It shows intent, but no Ford car has this system installed yet (unless it’s in some Ford research lab, which they’re thinking…). The patent includes enough detail that Ford has clearly put a lot of work into it, though, and companies like it don’t throw R&D money into such systems without intending to use them eventually.
The nightmare scenario is that future cars will come with a built-in dealer who tries to sell you on built-in features and, if you fall behind on payments, repossess themselves. Ford is currently the only car company to have proposed such a system, never mind patenting it, so that might not happen, but… something tells me executives and shareholders at companies will really like this cars. Welcome to the future of vehicle ownership: First your own car distracts you, then one night it drives away on its own.