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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 8:08 pm on 20th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Chair, Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 Committee 8:08 pm, 20th December 2017

My Lords, I too sat on the committee during this investigation and thank the noble Earl for his very able chairmanship. Most of us on the committee thought there would be fully automated cars on the UK’s roads by 2030, but we all thought that driverless mobility would come more easily and sooner to fields of movement other than on our roads. The difficulty will be to get investors and Governments to invest in these other fields, because the rewards for AV cars are of course enormous and are already attracting billions in terms of private research funding. Details on progress, due to reasons of obvious brand competition, were sadly not available to our committee, which probably undermined the accuracy of our report.

One of those other fields is agriculture, where the advantages are many. In western agriculture, we currently look to use bigger tractors where possible, because one man—the most expensive component—can do a lot of work in the shortest period of time in very large fields. But myriad small connected and automated tractors—perhaps I can call them CATs—about the size of a garden tractor could change all that. For a start, they can work day or night. Being small, the soil damage will be minimal. There is no advantage to ripping out hedges and forming big fields for big tractors. Being small and, I hope, mass-produced, they should not be too expensive in the end, and maybe even smallholders in the developing world will be able to afford them. I envisage a day when each field will have its own CAT in charge of its crop. It will assess the soil, cultivate the field and ask its manager for the right seed, and it will then sow and manage the crop. It is already possible for a CAT to recognise pests and diseases in crops and then spray not the whole field but the individual plants affected. The savings in chemicals, from the point of view of the environment, and in the cost of food will be considerable. Bear in mind that satnavs on modern tractors are already accurate to within an inch and they already talk to their manufacturers’ computers, which can let the farmer know when something is going wrong. Many problems today in driving big tractors stem from operator error in handling the complicated technology, so driverless tractors could be an advantage.

Another non-road field for AVs is the high seas, as has been mentioned. To my mind, the advantage here is that the changeover can be gradual; you can have a huge ship running on only a skeleton crew to take over if things go wrong. In a car, it would be impossible for a passenger to take over in that split second when things have gone wrong, but a boat normally has a much slower timescale when it comes to approaching disasters. Rolls-Royce told us that a greater use of autonomous marine vessels could save the global marine industry up to £80 billion per annum from reductions in capital costs, manning costs and fuel costs.

Turning back to automated cars, the advantages, particularly when combined with electric power, are enormous. Elon Musk of Tesla fame believes that he can develop a self-driving capability that is 10 times safer than manual cars via, in his words, “massive fleet learning”. He also believes that just by tapping a button you can add your car to, say, the Uber 2 shared fleet and have it earn income for you when you are at work or on vacation. We use our cars for less than 10% of the time, and this extra money earned could pay for the cost of the car and more, making AV cars affordable to anyone—though, if you are like me, you probably ought to remove the golf clubs from the boot.

Certain changes will be needed. We will have to change the law to stop jaywalkers. As in the US and elsewhere, we will be able to walk across the road only at certain points. In trials in Italy, people tended to walk out in front of AVs just to test them. Still, I think that if the law is changed and all AVs have cameras and black boxes, people will soon learn. Everything around an AV will be being recorded; you might even think twice about picking your nose. Other necessary changes include the insurance framework. Google, Volvo and Mercedes have already announced that they will accept full liability for collisions involving their self-driving cars.

Meanwhile, as far as the UK Government are concerned, apart from putting in place the surrounding legal framework, which will be considerable, I personally do not think they should get too involved in funding automated cars. As I said, there are already billions and billions of pounds of private sector research being invested. All the major car companies are competing in secret against each other, and the Government cannot hope to be anything more than a bit player in the field. Buses and public transport might be different, and especially investment in their route infrastructure, as several noble Lords have mentioned, but there is enough private investment going into automated cars to mean that this is not an area for the Government to waste their money on. By all means create testing facilities and make it clear what we expect from the private sector, but leave the actual investment to those who will reap the rewards. The same probably applies to the world of automated ships, where the rewards are also considerable, but again the governance here will need serious attention.

The one area where Innovate UK really must get involved, along with DfID and Defra with their research budgets, is the area of automated tractors, which I have dubbed CATs, which I feel have great advantages. There seems to be a remarkable reluctance by normal tractor companies to get involved—they seem to hope that this advance will go away—but the public benefit could be enormous, and I believe there is a serious role here for even this cash-strapped Government.