‘Ick Or Ethics’ Ethics Quiz: The Self-Repossessing Car

This one has my ethics alarms ringing, but I can’t seem to find anything unethical about it.

A recently published patent application from Ford describes a system that would lock drivers out of their vehicles for nonpayment and allow the vehicle to repossess itself.

The patent document was formally published on February 23. Titled “Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle,” it outlines different methods that could be taken if the vehicle’s owner misses payments. This would trigger a”repossession system computer,” which would be capable of disabling “a functionality of one or more components of the vehicle,” including the air conditioning, and radio.” “Incessant and unpleasant sound” could be turned on “every time the owner is present in the vehicle.” Finally, the car could be placed in a “lockout condition,” unable to be driven except in the case of an emergency.

The dead-beat driver would first be sent a notice of payment delinquency. If the driver continued to miss payments, functions would slowly be disabled in the vehicle over time. If the driver still missed payments, the vehicle would be placed in lockout, with the door lock mechanisms disabled, literally barring the owner’s access to the car on designated days, certain times or completely. During the days that the owner is allowed to drive the vehicle,he or she would be limited to a geofenced location. In thr final stages on enforcement, vehicles would be instructed to move to locations that are “more convenient for a tow truck to tow the vehicle,” or told to drive to “the repossession agency, an impound lot, or a junkyard depending on the market value of the vehicle.”


Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Find me a reason this is unethical. I can’t think of one!


Pointer: The Drive

25 thoughts on “‘Ick Or Ethics’ Ethics Quiz: The Self-Repossessing Car

  1. I foresee unethical treatment of minor children or animals if the car should choose to lock the ‘owner’ out while he/she stepped out to get something with a pet or child in the car. The car dealer could be in trouble if the car drove itself away with an infant inside.

    • I agree, plus “unable to be driven except in the case of an emergency.”, how are you able to clarify it’s an emergency? Woman runs to her car from a mugger, car picks that time to lock her out.

      I would definitely say unethical, there are too many ways this could go wrong. Also, I currently work at an auto financing business, I think I’ll ask one of the repo people how much it costs to actually take back a car. I suspect that the “repossession systems computer” may cost more than simply having regular humans pick the car up.

  2. In the interest of transparency, I work for Ford but I have no knowledge of this patent or Ford’s plans for its use. I am commenting as a consumer speaking only for myself and not on behalf of Ford.
    From my perspective, ultimately, technology and new innovation is simply a set of tools. Just as with any tool, it could be used by anyone for any reason (legitimate or not, ethical or not, legal or not). The question is when it is implemented, who will be able to use or activate the system, under what conditions and what precautions are in place to prevent abuse or use by unauthorized persons or in inappropriate circumstances?

  3. The only way this might be unethical, I think, is if the owner isn’t given ample warning of the timing of the lockout. Shutting off the vehicle and leaving someone stranded without warning would be shitty.

    Assuming clear advance warning is given to the deadbeat, there’s really nothing wrong with this. I’m not sure I would buy a vehicle with this feature set built in (something like it will probably eventually be mandated for law enforcement use, which would raise many ethical issues), but if it’s an add-on that is only present during the period of financing, I don’t see a problem here with the stated purpose of the technology. I certainly don’t see how it’s any worse than sending a person to trespass onto your property to repossess the car.

  4. I would be concerned that such a system could be hacked by criminals, or that governments could use such as yet another mechanism of control. (“Due to the risk of spreading Covid-28 OnmiDelta, all public protests against the current regime have been prohibited. Motor vehicles in the area are being placed in a nonfunctional status to enforce lockdown mandates.”)

  5. Jack,

    To my eyes, this extends far beyond normal penalties for a non-payment or breach of contract, especially since they get increasingly punitive and paternalistic. In most cases, if you stop making payments on a car they send you increasingly-nasty letters before finally hauling it away in the middle of the night. None of it includes the “tisk tisk” finger-wagging demonstrated here. Limiting you to “emergency use only” (whose emergency?) “Geofencing”? That’s what we do to dogs and cattle by way electronic collars (which often prove ineffective). “Annoying sounds”? Like the ones they play outside of convenience stores here to discourage vagrancy? Then, a final “lockout” where your allowed the privilege of looking at your car, shading some driveway, and providing them free storage (at least until they call it home) without use. Talk about cruel and unusual.

    Also, it specifically denotes active tracking on their part. Anyone not dwelling among rocks in the last 20 years has gotten used to the idea that all of us carry around passive homing and listening devices with us everyone, convinced that the intrusions are limited (and therefore mostly harmless) in nature. Conversely, this sends the message “We know everywhere you go, everything you do, everyone you do it with, and we get to decide how much of it matters.” One small step toward honesty, perhaps, but one giant leap backward for mankind.

    More could be written (and I’m tempted), but words published online anymore only provide learning fodder for a ChatAI or writing algorithm somewhere. Thanksbutnothanks.

  6. The systems as described are designed to take malicious actions against people using intrusive methods on the presupposition that everyone who purchases a car is a potential deadbeat and deserves to have a threat hanging over their heads.

    Deliberately annoying the living hell out of someone who is driving an automobile is inevitably going to lead to road rage incidents which will result in harm or death to innocent bystanders. Deliberately taking malicious actions when it is reasonably foreseeable that such malicious actions will lead to deadly consequences is unethical.

    Computers are not secure or reliable. It is inevitable that these systems will malfunction inflicting harm on people who have done nothing wrong. It is also inevitable that these systems will be used by unintended users to inflict harm on unintended targets. “Internet of Things” devices (IoT) typically possess absolutely zero security measures and are hackable by absolutely anyone who has access to a search engine to search for step by step instructions on how to do so. They also typically lack any indicators that give users the ability to tell when they have been hacked. Someone might be using your smart fridge or your thermostat to DDoS a random company at this very moment and you have absolutely no way to know that they are doing so. You cannot run an antivirus scan on your refrigerator. Connecting anything that has potential to be used for deadly purposes, such as large equipment and automobiles, to the internet at all is irresponsible and unethical. Doing so so that you can spitefully punish people is just appalling.

    I don’t know who gave corporation’s the idea that they have the right to intrude on the minute by minute activities of anyone and everyone so they can bother them for whatever reason they feel like at the moment, but it is a sick and twisted impulse. Lenders have legal methods by which they can deal with breaches of contract. Threatening everyone who purchases a car is not an ethical avenue for dealing with such breaches.

  7. Software sucks, software has bugs, data entry has errors, payments are sometimes not properly credited. If the car refuses to start in a critical situation (say, needing to drive someone to the hospital) and it results in a preventable death it would be unethical. Oh, and the company developing it should be accountable for it, including jail time for manslaughter.

    No one should even consider trying this until the legal system is prepared to deal with the consequences. As someone who has worked on safety-critical software I assure you it is not.

  8. Too much of a risk of a glitch or a mistake creating a situation where really bad consequences result. Also puts too much power that could be abused in the hands of too few people. I don’t think you want to find yourself getting ready to leave for work and suddenly your car won’t start when you know you’ve been keeping up the payments. Unfortunately, there’s been a glitch in the system and it will take at least 24 hours to correct. In the meantime you’re stuck. The idea of American society is for people to be self-reliant, not dependent on others. At this point in New Jersey and I’m guessing in a bunch of other states too, all court filings are electronic. Over the past two weeks there have been two glitches in the system that have prevented filing, usually only for a day. Still, when you’re dealing with time sensitive stuff, it is imperative that the system not glitch when attorneys and their clients could suffer bad consequences as a result. Setting up a situation where a glitch could prove catastrophic is at least in an ethical gray area.

  9. I suppose I must have been prescient in suggesting, a couple of years ago, that autonomous vehicles might be able to drive themselves back to the dealership in the event of non-payment.
    I am curious as to how such features would be disabled if a vehicle were purchased outright, or when payments were completed. How would you know for sure?
    In other news, my well cared-for 25 year-old SUV and 26 year-old truck are looking better every day.

  10. I think everyone has covered the computer side of things, and those potential glitches. But my experience is more about bank errors, although I have had plenty of computer glitches as well.

    Back in ’91, I purchased my first new vehicle. For 5 years, I made payments, looking forward to the day it would be mine, and not the banks. Mid-way through the 4th year, I received a notice of non-payment. I contacted the bank, and was notified to disregard, they did in fact get my payment and the letter was sent in error. A couple of months later, I received a summons to court for repossession of my nearly paid off vehicle. I was able to prove payment, and the bank had to release the title 2 months early.

    If this new technology had been in place, my truck would have returned itself and I would have been left without transportation to fight my case, or a way to work to earn the money to finish the payments.

  11. I believe that cars equipped with OnStar or equivalent can already disable a vehicle if necessary. The problem with disabling the vehicle if it is already being hidden from repossession is that after some period of time the value of the vehicle will be in its parts. Without an ability to drive the vehicle there is no functional value for the non-performing buyer. I’m wondering when the insurance companies will begin forcing you to install their tracking device that monitors how you are driving through the vehicle’s computer interface.

    Car makers have been required to add safety features such as seat belts and air bags. Currently, devices designed to prevent you from driving while intoxicated are being considered in Congress, but these required features actually do provide the user value by preventing serious injury or death. That cannot be said for a disabling device to protect the bank’s interests.

    People buy products for the value that product delivers to them, and the product’s price is reflective of the bundle of attributes being purchased that provide that value. How does a device such as this add consumer value? Why should a buyer be forced to pay for value that can only be enjoyed by another? Therefore, it is unethical to force all buyers to pay for a feature that only provides a benefit to a third party. If a bank wants a borrower to have such a device installed as a condition of the contract that is their business and the market will adjust accordingly.

    It should be noted that companies file patents on all sorts of ideas with no immediate intention of developing it. Because I have no knowledge of the patent filing, the filing might be for a technology that might have uses far beyond simply what has been described here and for goods that are not even vehicles. The patent filing in itself is not unethical.

  12. I don’t see anything unethical about the technology. I do foresee a lot of ethical issues coming out of it, such as what has already been mentioned here. Like all tech, it has its good uses. Like all tech, it can be misused by flawed or malicious human beings.

  13. Yeah, Ford credit decided to loan the money to someone untrustworthy to sell a car and add profits to their bottom line.

    And it has to be for Ford credit, because in any other situation, they’ve been paid the cash from the lending institution who took on the risk of customer non-payment.

    By all means, let’s incur the legal risk mentioned in all the scenarios from comments above to cover for our poor financial decisions.

    It had to be a Moron with a MBA who came up with this. And another one who approved it going forward.


  14. The first thing this system brings to my mind is the repossession stories told by my dad and the bankers I worked with. My dad told me about singing “Mares eat oat and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy” along with the radio as he and a buddy of his from work AND THEIR DATES drove through a moonlit evening in 1940s Dade County on their way to repossess a truck for their boss at the Miami IH dealership. Bankers love telling repo stories. All of them seem to start out their careers dealing with loans that go bad and realizing upon collateral. Probably the best training for future loan officers. And then there’s the tow truck I saw that obviously specializes in doing repos. It was beat up, old, painted flat black like the Death Mobile and had hand painted on the back of the cab in large, white, block letters: TOO LATE TO PAY!

    Although under the applicable Arizona law, anyone doing a repo has to cease and desist if there’s any disturbance arising during the act of repossession (the bankers advised me that if I was ever on site while my car was being possessed, just make a lot of noise and the tow truck guy would have to stop and try again another time), this system would minimize the inevitable confrontations that occur with many repossessions. Deployed properly, this system would be a good thing. No one will get shot.

    • And I’m going to guess Jack’s being okay with the system derives from his likely belief that non-payment of a car loan has consequences for the borrower and his relationship with the lender’s collateral. Or, “Don’t be a deadbeat!”

      • The problem with that logic is that the scope of system would affect all car owners, not just deadbeats. Aside from that, there are already existing systems in place that allow for addressing the issue of deadbeats. Adding torture to the list of methods is just evil. Just because you can do something doesn’t make it ethical or right. Our society is just zooming down the path of infantilizing the people then using that infantilism as an excuse to normalize what previously would have been considered unacceptable actions. The golden rule seems to apply here.

        • I agree re torture. That’s juvenile. Shutting down the radio or the A/C or the power steering as the non-payment accelerates is ridiculous. Send a bunch of notices, but just make the car drive to the impound lot when it’s parked in the middle of the night.

  15. I just imagine this added to the other hassles when someone has their identity stolen. “I need to go to the bank and to deal with several businesses and clear this up, but my car won’t work!”

  16. Having practiced bankruptcy law for a number of years, I can see where this system might run afoul on the automatic stay against repossessions, among other things. That stay goes into effect at the time of filing, and verbal notice of the filing is enough to let a creditor know. Violating the automatic stay is a contempt of court and can be punished accordingly. I can see a major problem with getting that notice to the creditor’s computer operators. I don’t know that it’s a potential ethics problem, but it is definitely a legal one.

  17. What happens if the scofflaw’s wife is shopping with her children when the self-possession starts? What happens if there is an error in the billing system? I get automated phone calls each month from my utilities saying my utilities are in arrears even though they are on auto-draft. Each month I call the utility company and they tell me to disregard the notice of shutting off my utilities because it was a system error.

    I consider all auto computer generated applications to be unethical

  18. Some have touched on this but this technology is not new. In reality, used car lots install throttle and ignition kill switches which disable the ignition system on the car, prohibiting the car owner from starting and driving the car. If the payments are delinquent the financier can turn off the ignition which does not go into effect until the car is turned off. Then, the driver is unable to restart the car unless a release message is sent to the car. It is annoying but not unethical.

    The more troubling aspect of this and technology as a whole, as was shown in the Murdaugh case, is the ability of smart technology to track our every movement, apparently within a few feet of our exact location(s) at any given time. That is a truly disturbing intrusion into privacy. I get that cell phone technology is nothing more than glorified CB radio waves bounced off a satellite (yeah, I know it is more complicated than that, but . . . ) but I wonder if we truly have an expectation of privacy when our very movements are monitored and tracked, some for commercial purposes and some for more nefarious purposes.


    • A few years back I totaled my car and needed a quick replacement. With the paltry insurance money and another $500 I toured the used car lots to get a quick replacement for the next six months as we were planning to get a new car anyway shortly after. Every single car meeting my criteria had the ignition kill switch. Since I was paying full in cash I insisted on having it physically removed because I did not want to have to deal with having that fixed if anyone mistyped something in the computer.

  19. Too easily prone to abuse and mistakes.

    Anyone who has had a billing dispute can relate.

    I am pretty sure I have recounted my “Two-cents story” on this site before, but this sort of technology gives one party (who likely already has legal protection by repossession laws) an inordinately powerful stick in disputes.

    Add to that: the possibility of hacking.

    And does the power go away AFTER the loan is paid off?

    How do you know? The tech is still in the car, no?

    My current issue: Huntington Bank is incredibly aggressive when it comes to repossessing cars from estates.

    Got a call yesterday from a rep who asked why I told the daughter of someone whose dad died last month that she should not return the car to the bank.

    I told him that was a privileged conversation and I would not discuss it with him.

    (I had told her that, if she were to become the Personal representative of the estate, she would need to preserve the assets for the heirs and should not waste assets of the estate.)

    His response was that the death of the borrower was a default under the financing agreement and they wanted her to turn over the vehicle.

    I told him to send me the financing docs and he said he could not do that until she was the Personal Representative and I was her lawyer for that purpose.


    I told her to lock the car in a garage.

    I checked with another lawyer in my office who fought with Huntington and he got the financing docs from his client and death is not a default (and they accepted numerous payments from the borrower’s wife without complaint).

    Our theory: Huntington Bank knows that used car sales can be profitable right now. They want the vehicles more than they want the payments.

    This software lets them overstep their legal rights with next to no recourse.

    They already have self-help remedies under the law.

    Expanding those remedies is prone to abuse.

    Fuck Huntington Bank!


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