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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 7:59 pm on 20th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 7:59 pm, 20th December 2017

My Lords, this is the second time this week that I have taken part in a debate which has concentrated on a historical document, in that this committee report, like the one we debated on Monday, is nine months old—which is ironic in a field such as this where technology is moving so fast. At least in this case we have a government response, and I want to concentrate this evening on that response, because it reveals a slow-moving, bewildered Government, with no clear focus, no clear idea of where they want to go and unwilling to take a real leadership position. Leadership is about a lot more than repeatedly stating that we are world leaders. As the noble Baroness has just pointed out, this is a very competitive field. We are not world leaders in this—not with security—and after Brexit we are much less likely to be, because we will not have those strong European links.

I am unashamedly excited about autonomous vehicles and their huge potential, but so much still has to be decided on the direction in the future. This week, the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, unveiled his vision of Uber-style CAVs replacing buses—presumably all of us in our individual pods, which we summon up when we need them. I take issue with that image. I agree that in rural areas the concept could be really useful, especially for older or disabled people who are unable to drive, but in urban areas the big issue is congestion. Urbanisation is expected to increase average city density by 30% over the next 15 years. I accept that CAVs will drive much more closely together and will move off much more smartly at traffic lights—there possibly will not even still be traffic lights—but even so, the Grayling free-market vision could well turn out a chaotic, congested nightmare. It is much more likely that we will continue to have buses, but in more responsive mode. But neither this response nor the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill tackle the overall vision.

Another issue I want to emphasise is exactly how automation will develop, which has already been tackled by other speakers. It seems to me there are two constraints: consumer acceptance and the readiness of our infrastructure. I can illustrate the issue of consumer acceptance by saying that I have travelled in an autonomous vehicle, and it takes a bit of a leap of faith. Many new cars are currently at level 3, and we will probably evolve towards level 4 and then level 5 step by step, rather than by taking a big leap forward. Indeed, the manufacturers I have talked to have spoken about this. When we get to level 5, there will be great social opportunities, especially in rural areas, but the Bill in the other place at the moment really just deals with the insurance side of things. It does not have the vision. We need social preparation, which we did not have for electric vehicles, for example—people look amazed as a silent vehicle moves towards them. I suggest that a great deal more work is needed, as referred to in the committee’s report, on social preparation for the changes that will take place.

Another huge issue that will come from this is the impact on jobs. There will be job losses, mainly among drivers—from taxis to HGVs, from tractors to ships, from pilots to tank drivers. Your Lordships might think that not having to do some of those jobs would be a huge advantage—no one would voluntarily be a military tank driver, where lives are at risk—but there are of course social changes that would come with that. We also need—the Government need—to prepare for the jobs of the future, and I want to draw out an ancillary issue. The Government’s response refers to apprenticeships, but when I asked the Government in November how they were preparing for this and,

“whether they intend to introduce a licensing and accreditation scheme for technicians working on electric and automated vehicles”,

the Answer came back that,

“it is too early to develop a training, licensing, and accreditation scheme for automated vehicles”.

Given that we are already at level 3 in many places, that is a very complacent reply, and the Government need more vision.

Finally, there is the issue of infrastructure and the road network. The government response does not tackle the hard facts of our outdated, complex and congested infrastructure. I listened carefully this morning to the “Today” programme as the Minister outlined, in very careful wording, his vision that we should all have the right to request access to broadband by 2020. Now, that is very carefully put. I live in Wales, and there are vast swathes of the country with no mobile phone signal and no wi-fi. We have so far to go if the Government’s vision is to be implemented, and time is very short.

The Government have an important role as facilitators of research, for example, as initiators of the structure for skills and as facilitators of the necessary infrastructure and legislative framework. They also have an important role as guardians of our safety and security. The data issues associated with these vehicles are very serious and need to be considered; for example, the interface between the need for public data, to keep us safe, and the need for privacy of data for those aspects of our lives that we have a right to keep private. But that data is valuable, and the Government have a lot of thinking to do on this.