Sorry, repo man, in the future, cars might repossess themselves

One automaker's dystopian vision includes a self-repossessing car that may even take itself to a junkyard if its market value has fallen too far.

Sorry, repo man, in the future, cars might repossess themselves

You approach your car, groggy, awkwardly shifting your coffee and phone to one hand so you can fumble through your purse for your keys. But before you find them, the car starts. It backs itself out of the driveway, turns around, and drives away empty.

You didn't pay the car bill, did you?

This minor dystopian vision is brought to you by Ford F, +4.22% and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

This is far from being the most bizarre automotive patent application

Automakers apply for patents all the time. We rarely bother to report their patent applications because many of them come to nothing.

Automakers aggressively patent ideas they never use.

Tesla TSLA, +3.61% holds a patent for a laser windshield cleaning system. Toyota TM, +1.86% holds a patent for an in-car fragrance system that also can dispense tear gas for self-defense. Ford holds a patent for a conveyer belt to bring items from the trunk to the front seat.

Even companies that only think about building cars hold patents for them. Google GOOGL, +1.79% holds a patent for a hood sticky enough to immobilize a human being, meant as a safety device. If you hit a pedestrian with your car, they'd stick to the hood instead of bouncing off and getting a second set of injuries from hitting the road. But imagine washing it after a drive through Louisiana in bug season.

Read: Buying a car from the factory sounds expensive, but it can actually save you money. Here's how to do it.

An idea doesn't have to be particularly good to earn a patent. According to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University, 'The five primary requirements for patentability are: (1) patentable subject matter, (2) utility, (3) novelty, (4) nonobviousness, and (5) enablement.' Carmakers routinely patent ideas they never execute.

An escalating series of problems

But, occasionally, we find a patent compelling enough to merit telling you about it.

Ford's self-repossessing car, for instance.

Ford filed to patent the idea in August of 2021, but the patent office can be slow to publish applications. Ford's patent documents emerged just last week.

It's a simple enough idea. As cars grow more connected, automakers gain more control over them.

In the short run, Ford says, it could 'disable a functionality of a component of the vehicle' or 'place the vehicle in a lockout condition' over a missed payment. Late with your monthly bill? Ford could disable your engine until you pay it.

Ford believes that cars will eventually be able to drive themselves from owners who aren't willing to pay.

This could be driving to a "spot that is easier for a tow truck or to the premises of the repossession agency."

Ford goes on to describe a more advanced system that would allow the car to 'communicate with the computer of the lending institution' to measure its own resale value. The vehicle could account for mileage and damage.

If it finds its market value below a 'pre-determined threshold price,' the car could commit suicide. That is, Ford says, it could 'autonomously move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to a junkyard.'

Dystopian, but likely rare

Here, we should point out that lenders aren't anxious to repossess cars.

In recent months, repossession rates have been rising. They fell so much during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, that they are still below historical norms.

Lenders generally know they stand a better chance of making money by helping you resume payments than by repossessing the car and trying to sell it. So, they will often work with a borrower who falls behind. They may allow borrowers to pay just the interest on a loan or even pause payments briefly to let the borrower's finances improve before resuming payments.

If all this talk of automotive suicide and self-driving repossession confusing, don't worry. Your future car will explain it all to you. Ford's patent application includes a long series of verbal and written warnings the car could convey via its speakers and screens as a borrower falls behind.