Ford filed a patent application for an autonomous vehicle capable of repossessing itself in the event that the owner defaults on car payments.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office recently published an application that was originally submitted by Ford two years ago. The application outlines a computer-based system that would activate a "multi-step repossession procedure" if car payments are not made. The vehicle would first receive several notifications about the missed payments, and if the issue persists, it could be locked or made to comply with repossession efforts by the financial institution, involving drivers or leaseholders.
“When an acknowledgment is not received within a reasonable period of time, the first computer may disable a functionality of a component of the vehicle or may place the vehicle in a lockout condition,” the patent application states, referencing the lending agency controlling the computer. “The lockout condition may be lifted momentarily in case of an emergency to allow the vehicle to travel to a medical facility.”
The technology has the potential to be used in various types of vehicles, including electric and internal combustion models. If payments are not made, the system may deactivate certain features of the vehicle such as air conditioning, remote key fobs, and automated locks. This is intended to "increase discomfort for the driver and passengers" and incentivize payment. Alternatively, the technology may trigger chimes, beepers, or radios to emit "a continuous and unpleasant sound" whenever the owner is present in the vehicle.
As the number of missed payment warnings increases, the system may also employ a "geofence" that deactivates the necessary driving systems outside of a designated area. Additionally, the technology could lock the vehicle outside of work hours to prevent it from negatively impacting the owner's livelihood and ability to make payments.
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If the driver fails to take action, the vehicle may call for a tow truck. Semi-autonomous vehicles may be capable of relocating themselves to a more convenient location for the tow truck operator, while fully autonomous vehicles could be moved "from the owner's premises" to the repossession agency or lending institution without the need for a tow truck.
If the costs of repossession are significantly high for vehicles with high mileage, the system may direct them to automatically drive themselves to a junkyard. Additionally, if a driver tries to obstruct a repossession procedure and block the vehicle's path, the system may prompt the vehicle to contact the police.
The patent application is timely as a growing number of consumers struggle to keep up with their automotive loan payments amidst economic turmoil and inflationary pressures. According to a report from Cox Automotive, the number of debtors delinquent by over 60 days increased by 26.7% year-over-year as of December 2022. The report also indicated that 1.84% of loans were severely delinquent, which is the highest rate since the financial crisis.
In the last two years, consumers have increasingly relied on debt to finance their transactions due to inflation. In addition, the Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates is resulting in record-high car payments. Data from car review website Edmunds shows that the average annual percentage rates on new financed vehicles rose from 5.7% in Q3 2022 to 6.5% in Q4 2022, while the rate for used financed vehicles increased from 9% to 10%.
Although levels of indebtedness and delinquency have risen, financial institutions have been known to engage in abusive practices when repossessing vehicles. For instance, Wells Fargo had to pay a $3.7 billion settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year for illegally charging fees on various loans and wrongfully repossessing cars.
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