Ford has some interesting ideas on what self-driving cars might soon be able to do. Besides freeing us from the tedium of commuting, the company envisions cars that could repossess themselves.
According to a document recently published on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website, Ford said it is considering a system that would allow a car to, on its own, leave you if you stop making your monthly auto payments.
Don't worry, though. The patent hasn't been approved yet. And Ford insists it's just a thought.
"We don't have any plans to deploy this," Ford said in a statement, pointing out that the company was granted - not just applied for, but actually granted - 1,342 patents last year. That's an average of 3.7 patents per day.
Companies apply for patents to protect ideas from being used by others, whether or not they actually use the intellectual property themselves, explained patent attorney Michael Messinger, a partner in the Washington, DC, office of the firm Vorys. These processes can take a long time, said Messinger, with lots of back-and-forth.
But maybe some parts of Ford's 14-page application, filled with ideas for getting people to pay up, may be more patentable than others.
Before getting to the point where the car would simply drive itself away, delinquent payers would be subject to a litany of annoyances. First, badgering messages on owners' smartphones and even on the screens inside the car. These messages would demand at least an acknowledgment or, better yet, on-the-spot payment.
If the owner persists in ignoring these messages, the vehicle would, in the words of Ford's patent application, "initiate execution of a multi-step repossession procedure."
Step one involves making the owner pay in other ways. Features like the air conditioning, cruise control, or the radio might stop working. (Some of that is already possible in many vehicles.)
If that doesn't work, the vehicle could become proactively irritating. The stereo might be programmed to "emit an incessant and unpleasant sound every time the owner is present in the vehicle," according to the patent.
There would be just one way to turn off the noise, which would of course involve "....making contact with the lending institution to address the payment delinquency."
Failing that, the car would make itself unusable by, for starters, refusing to unlock its doors. This is where things get really complicated.
A borrower might need to drive to work in order to earn the money to pay back the loan. The car could be restricted to allow itself only to be taken to work and, maybe, to buy groceries or drop the kids off at school. That's it. And all the while, the driver will be unable to listen to the stereo, might not have air conditioning and could be subjected to that irritating, unstoppable noise.
Then there is the issue of what to do if there's a medical emergency. In a situation like this, according to Ford's application, the car could be enabled to drive itself to the nearest emergency room or even to coordinate with emergency medical personnel to rendezvous at a location. The car would then go back to locking out its owner.
Only in the most extreme non-payment scenario would the car receive an over-the-air command to quit its owner. In that case, if the car isn't capable of fully self-driving in traffic, it might just move itself to a place where it would be easy for a tow truck to retrieve it, like the edge of a street.
Sometimes, though, borrowers who are behind on payments will take the step of locking their car in a garage or placing it somewhere that makes it impossible to simply drive itself away. In the end, a good old-fashioned human being taking back the car may be the only answer.
So, while Ford's idea for a self-repossessing car might never be granted an actual patent, some of the ideas included in the patent - a car that makes horrible noises if you don't pay, for instance, or that lets you drive to only one or two places - those just might be patentable, said Messinger.
It may not have been your idea of the "car of the future" but, if you don't pay up, it just might be.
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