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Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (Science and Technology Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 20th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 7:50 pm, 20th December 2017

My Lords, I was one of the unruly members of the committee, and I too add my commendations to the excellent chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who kept us all in order. I should declare an interest in that I am chancellor of Cranfield University, which is involved providing a research road test environment for the testing and validation of new autonomous vehicles, so I am a bit conflicted in my views on the way in which the Government are progressing this issue. It seems to be a statement of faith rather than progression on the basis of an evidence base. We experienced that a bit in the committee. It was delightful to see a string of providers of evidence and witnesses who were all absolutely mustard-keen on this technology and what it could potentially deliver, although sometimes when we poked them a bit with a sharp stick, they had to admit that the benefits were somewhat theoretical rather than as yet evidenced.

It was quite sobering for me when we had the chap from the RAC Foundation as a witness—being an environmentalist, I have never been a huge fan of the RAC Foundation because we were on different pages. The RAC Foundation was always pushing motor transport at a time when the environmental movement was trying to move people into public transport, reduce journeys et cetera. Being faced with the RAC man was not something that I felt was going to illuminate my life, but the reality was that he was a breath of fresh air. He was fairly sceptical and very realistic about the pace at which fully autonomous vehicle are likely to come forward in any realistic fashion, other than on a test-bed basis, and he was also fairly realistic and sceptical about the range of applications which would be likely to bring benefit. So good on you, man from the RAC Foundation.

One of the much-vaunted benefits of autonomous vehicles which the Government are still committed to and which is heralded in the Industrial Strategy White Paper is the benefits for older people. It states:

“One of the main groups benefiting from this revolution is older people who may no longer be able to drive or have other difficulties with mobility”.

I am slightly anxious about that because I have visions of these small autonomous pods that you dial up scooting up to the house of an older person who is signally unable to get downstairs, carry a suitcase, deal with a walking stick and get themselves into an autonomous pod, having the same problem at the other end, and being hugely vulnerable if they are in a pod which fails to move—and we had a little difficulty when we tried the test car in Greenwich which got stuck. I am not convinced that autonomous vehicles are going to be that much better for older people than my nice local taxi service which I phone up and whose driver carries my bag out for me, puts it in the boot and makes sure that I get home and that I have the door open and the lights on before he leaves me at the end of the day.

However, the Government are committed to moving forward on this issue; it is now a grand challenge in the Industrial Strategy and there is quite a lot of pressure and reliance on cutting a sector deal. I am not sure what the really quite clear statement:

“The government wants to see fully self-driving cars … on UK roads by 2021”,

means. Does it mean that we are all going to be in fully self-driving cars by 2021, which I think is probably unlikely, or will there be the odd fully self-driving car on the roads by 2021? Are we talking about there being a number of vehicles that are smart enough to be called autonomous or are we talking about a need to develop roads that are truly smart?

I welcome some of the priorities that the Government have outlined in the Industrial Strategy White Paper and the new grand challenge in this area. The flexible regulatory framework is a really brave move, but will be a very interesting one in terms of Britain becoming a hot spot for research and development on the use of autonomous vehicles in practice. That is good. I very much welcome the commitment to a future urban mobility strategy because one of the points that we raised in the committee’s report is that we must not forget that people travel on small roads, not just trunk roads, and local transport authorities are way behind the pace compared with the Government’s ambition.

I also heartily welcome the fact that if you are on a road you are going to have 5G. It would be quite nice to have 4G in my little rural village, or even 3G on occasion.

I would like the Minister to ponder on a few things before I finish. One is the very valid point that was made about the risks associated with tier 3 and tier 4 before we get to the fully autonomous tier 5 and the risks associated with autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles being mixed on the road. I think a considerable amount of testing needs to be applied to that before we move forward. Mostly, I would like the Government to come out with a joined-up transport strategy. It was interesting that in their response the Government listed seven policy areas that they had strategies or plans for, and followed that up by saying that those documents were,

“not a comprehensive survey of everything the Department for Transport does”,

but went on to say that they did not have a joined-up transport strategy. We need a joined-up transport strategy that puts autonomous vehicles in the context of that strategy, looks at the reality of transport as a service rather than at vehicles on the roads, other modes of transport, the future role of public transport, congestion and pollution. Will the Minister ponder on just how many of the responses to our report indicated that further research would be needed? It seems to me that the Government are very committed to the idea that Britain will be a technology leader and a leader of research in this area. That is an admirable thing to push forward with, but we need also to bear in mind that we have not yet got clarity on where that will benefit people in the UK in a practical and applicable way. It would be unwise to be a global leader in competitiveness in the technology but still guddling around in the weeds with insufficient research and a lack of a strategy for exactly how this would work in the UK.