We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 20th December 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 8:13 pm, 20th December 2017

My Lords, the number of road vehicles is growing, which is government policy. They are still powered by fossil fuels, leading to air pollution and carbon emissions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, has just explained. These damage people’s health. There are millions of deaths per year, especially in urban areas; in the UK the figure may be about 30,000 and rising. Carbon emissions affect the global and regional climate, and there are many impacts on people’s health, forests, food production and the biosphere generally. These damaging consequences are forcing nations around the world to plan for the widespread introduction of electric vehicles, which will be powered by new sources of electric power such as renewables, fossil and fusion.

Recent technology developments mean that electric vehicles can travel fast enough for reasonable people but, as I am sure noble Lords know, there are fanatics who want to go very fast. These vehicles can be controlled by human drivers or by remote control, with the controller in the vehicle or, with some technologies, with controllers distant from the vehicle—tractors and mining, for example.

The government response to the report from our Science and Technology Committee points out the challenge to the UK car industry and associated technological industries. Currently much of the financial ownership and control is in the hands of foreign-owned automobile companies, although these companies certainly invest in the UK’s R&D and work with UK subcontractors and institutes. Our report rightly emphasises that training in computing and electrical systems will be critical. As I learned last week when talking to people at Nissan, small garages will be dealing with very high voltage systems that could be extremely dangerous. That is just an example of where we need new thinking on training.

As the committee learned, these large international companies are steering many of the new developments, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was saying. These developments are being looked at by international panels, which are developing international standards. It was extremely difficult for the committee to obtain clear evidence about the UK’s exact role—indeed, the whole report was UK-centric—but in Germany and Europe there is much greater co-ordination in this respect. So it is essential that in future the UK participate more strongly in these groups but, as I have said, there is little indication in the report that that will happen.

Recently Nissan presented the first mass-market electric semi-automatic car, the Leaf, which will be available in January 2018. I and others who were shown the vehicle in the showrooms on Horseferry Road—maybe noble Lords can go down there—were given a briefing. My concern was that this car and its drivers will operate on British and European roads in ways the Government and companies simply have not taken into account; indeed, I am not sure that the people selling it had any idea how much of the technology was working. Compare that with the knowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, had of his car when he first got one.

The safety of semi-automatic and fully automatic cars is of considerable concern, and it has not been explained—certainly not to the people buying them. There are various levels of technology that they need to understand, as other noble Lords have commented. Some of the vehicles that are already on the roads partly monitor various features of the car’s surrounding environment, including neighbouring cars, as well as the car’s interior, and they are partially controlled by the driver. There are considerable differences between the Audi, which uses the driver’s eyeball to detect whether they are responding to what is happening, and the Nissan, which can measure the pressure of their grip on the wheel and even the blood oxygen level in their hand. So the training for full-time and part-time drivers is really important in order to know what the vehicle’s responses are, its function and how it will relate to other vehicles. For example, recently the driver of a vehicle in Britain suddenly began to lose consciousness, or at least his concentration, and he found to his astonishment when he came round that the car had already moved into another lane, but he had never been told when he bought the car that it would do that. It is a curious phenomenon that we are going to have these much more complicated cars, but there is no standard arrangement for how people learn about them and use them.

It is interesting that Elon Musk’s company, which has one of the most complex cars in the world on the market, gives people 90 minutes’ training to use one of its fancy cars. I know someone who had a car like that and he crashed; they are not easy to drive. That is extraordinary.

However, coming to the rescue over the horizon are the transport commissioners. I used to be a transport commissioner. Most people have never heard of them. They live in remote little offices in various boroughs, and they are meant to say what qualification bus drivers need and whether you can park a bus in someone’s back yard—really subtle things. They may well be necessary in future to teach people and organisations about these new systems; there should surely be standards for them.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, all autonomous vehicles should have a visible sign on them. That is particularly important when autonomous vehicles travel along country roads, where they may crash into traditional road vehicles. If you have had a near fatal crash, as I did once when hitchhiking in a Jaguar which nearly crashed into a tractor, you understand what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, is saying. This is the real world that vehicle designers must allow for with the latest technology.

Finally, following our excellent chairman’s remarks, data issues will become dominant in every aspect of traffic vehicles and drivers, just as our committee is looking at data throughout the National Health Service. This general theme for the future is well stated by our chairman, and he deserves a big thank you.