The idea of a vehicle intended for human transport being possessed, haunted, sentient, or able to communicate with (and in some cases assume autonomous control of its functions from) its human operators predates Stephen King’s Christine by at least several hundred years.
With the advent of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles and the vast array of complex computer systems that govern their various functions and capabilities, warnings about what the future might look like for vehicle owners have grown increasingly dire over the past several decades.
Now, Ford Motor Company has applied for a patent on a computer system that could allow your bank or finance company to take over your vehicle—and even make it drive itself to an impound lot or repossession facility.
But is this practical? What are the ramifications and concerns? And is Ford actually going to utilize this technology?
Let’s examine the use cases laid out in the patent language, as well as what Ford has said about the patent, to dig deeper into the reasoning behind this patent and the odds of it coming to your favorite Ford (or other) vehicle in the near future!
The Ford Patent
First, I think it would be instructive to look at why Ford would consider a patent like this viable to begin with. To do this, we need to take a look at the current state of patent law in the US, and how it is applied to situations like this.
Large corporations tend to generate intellectual property claims at a pace unthinkable to the average backyard inventor. Apple, Google, Tesla, AbbVie (the company behind Humira, which I’ve written about previously), and others try to carve out as much space for their intellectual property claims as they can for as long as they can, both to suppress competition and to ensure that anyone attempting to reproduce the results in the patents can only do so with the patent owner’s blessing and on the patent owner’s terms.
This is a common practice and is generally considered to be well within the purview of patent owners. Remember, the entire point of patents is to create a time- and language-limited monopoly for the patent owner, so the longer the patent and its progeny remain in force, the better it is for the inventor(s) of the innovation.
What Does the Ford Patent Actually Say?
The patent application proposes a computer system that could communicate with banks and lenders, independent of the nominal vehicle owner’s control, as well as other services like EMS and police, if necessary.
Taking the banks out of the equation, you’ve basically got a more sophisticated version of OnStar or similar vehicle monitoring programs. But it’s what this systemcouldbe able to do that sets it apart—and has critics up in arms.
First, the system could deliver a message to vehicle owners who get behind on payments that they need to contact the lender and work out a mutually acceptable resolution.
From here, the patent proposes a number of use cases that the system could implement, from locking the owner out of the vehicle or forcing them to use the vehicle only during certain windows of time or geographical area (a “geofence,” in Ford’s parlance), to causing the sound system to play irritating and incessant tones until the owner resolves the delinquency, to interfering with various vehicle systems like air conditioning, brakes, or the engine itself, to making a suitably provisioned autonomous vehicle drive itself to a place where it can be easily towed or repossessed.
In the event the vehicle owner attempts to interfere, the system could also take pictures and video of the vehicle’s surroundings, providing evidence of the owner’s actions to utilize in civil and criminal cases later. It could even summon police if the system registers a threat to the vehicle’s condition or integrity.
What Ford Says
Ford claims that this patent application is just an idea and asserts the company has no plans to actually implement or deploy the systems it describes. If this is so, a layperson may find it silly for Ford to spend the time and effort to patent something they have no intention of actually using.
However, I remind the reader that prohibitive patents of this type are commonplace, and that it is not unusual for companies to patent ideas they either can’t or won’t utilize themselves, to prevent other companies from using the same or sufficiently similar concepts and technologies without their approval.
Obviously, Ford has a vested interest in making sure its vehicles are on the road—and paid for, either through the medium of direct purchase or through finance and leasing channels.
With the vehicle value deprecation curve steepest in the first year and continuing at a more modest rate in years 2-5, and vehicle repossessions rising at a rate not seen since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, having vehicles equipped with technology that facilitates deadbeat owners either paying up or giving up their rides only makes sense for any auto company.
Ford simply appears to have been first on the line in recognizing the potential of such a system—giving it a potentially huge financial and marketplace advantage over other auto manufacturers for years to come.
What The Critics Say
Despite Ford’s assertions that the patent is not planned for use on the open market, critics have voiced concerns about several facets of the proposed system. Among the alarms raised are the ideas that:
- The system could be activated in error, or hacked or abused by unscrupulous or nefarious parties, effectively resulting in next-generation ransomware that could hold whole families, companies, or fleets of vehicles hostage.
- The system could cause components such as brakes, air conditioning, the engine, or other essential features to fail at moments which could place the driver and others in the vehicle in danger of injury or death, and/or
- The system could create distractions, as with the “incessant” tone from the vehicle’s sound system, that could lead to unsafe operation of the vehicle and result in damage to the vehicle, or injury or death to the occupants of the vehicle, either or any of which could expose Ford and lenders to personal injury and other civil claims and actions.
- The system would have to be tailored to comply with a hodgepodge federal, state, and local vehicle safety and repossession laws, which would create an untenable situation for Ford. For example, laws in Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine or Miami, Ohio and Miami, Florida governing vehicle repossessions and acceptable repo actions by lenders and their agents and assigns are likely to be different.(Please note that I am not an expert on repossession laws in any given jurisdiction and so can’t and don’t claim to know how those work on the street, as it were.)
Given all this, the critics say, this patent is a terrible idea from an ethical standpoint, because the potential for harm to the general public and Ford drivers specifically is so much greater than any perceived benefit which might derive from its usage.
Is This Patent Practical?
I think it’s likely, given all the factors in play, that Ford is unlikely to want, or be able, to deploy this technology any time soon. There are ample reasons for this, not least of which is the simple fact that the expense of engineering and adding practical working versions of these systems to new vehicles would be a daunting proposition.
To add the requisite systems and features to existing vehicles already on the streets would be prohibitive. Then, of course, there are the points the critics raise, all of which enjoy some validity—and all of which have chilling ramifications for the future of this technology and people who choose to purchase and use vehicles equipped with it.
In my view, it’s more likely, as with the Apple Watch equipped with a camera, that Ford doesn’t intend to use this system at all. However, simply having that patent on the books would create a nearly unbreakable block to other competitors in the autonomous vehicle space, such as Tesla and Google, who might be evaluating their own variants of a system like this for similar reasons. That would place Ford in a position that most competitors would find unassailable, and even those confident or crazy enough to try to tackle it would run up against the twin threats of Ford’s huge legal war chest and the law itself.
As a bargaining chip to ward off Tesla and others, this patent application appears far more formidable (and potentially lucrative) for Ford than actually installing and using it would be—and it’s certainly a lot less risky to the company’s image and the safety of the general public.
About the Author
John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).
His books include “Escaping the Gray” and “Think and Grow Rich for Inventors” and have won critical acclaim including an endorsement from Kevin Harrington, one of the original sharks on the hit TV show – Shark Tank, responsible for the successful launch of over 500 products resulting in more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. You can learn more about Professor Rizvi his patent law practice at www.ThePatentProfessor.com
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