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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 8:21 pm on 20th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 8:21 pm, 20th December 2017

My Lords, I add my appreciation to the noble Earl, Lord Selbourne, and his committee for their balanced report, particularly for its emphasis on the need for testing and innovation, combined with cautionary concerns about the downsides of autonomous vehicles.

The public focus is on levels 4 and 5—fully self-driving road cars—and whether they would be safer than human drivers or not in coping with real road conditions. If an object obstructs the road ahead, could a robotic driver distinguish between a bag, a dog or a child? The claim is that it cannot infallibly do this, but will do better than the average human driver. Is that true?

Be that as it may, it is important to realise how much has been achieved in improving safety. The long-term trend is gratifying. In 1930, when there were only a million cars on the road, there were more than 7,000 fatalities. By 2000, the annual death toll had halved, and since 2000 it has halved again to about 1,700 last year, although the number of cars now exceeds 20 million. The trend is due partly to better roads, but largely to safer cars and, in recent years, in particular to the electronic gadgetry incorporated in them and to sat-navs. This trend will surely continue, making driving safer and easier, leading to better lane discipline on motorways, platooning of goods vehicles and suchlike. There is obvious scope for driverless machines in farming and harvesting, operating off-road.

Big data will increasingly allow smart systems of traffic management to enhance flow. This will not eliminate congestion, but should make it less ubiquitous than it would otherwise become. We can foresee and unreservedly welcome these incremental advances, which will make levels 2 and 3 feasible. But, as the report makes clear, the transition towards level 5—completely driverless vehicles on ordinary roads carrying mixed traffic —would be a truly disjunctive change. We are justified in being sceptical about how feasible and acceptable this transition would be.

The report is none the less right to encourage experiments in limited areas and new technology, and it is welcome that the Government support that. Driverless cabs may be quickly accepted where they have roads, or at least lanes, to themselves—in city centres or perhaps on motorways—just as we already accept driverless trains on, for instance, the Docklands Light Railway. It will be a long time, however, before truck and taxi drivers are completely redundant. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, emphasised, the transition to full automation would be exceedingly difficult.

As a parallel, think of what is happening in civil aviation. Most flying is on autopilot. A real pilot is needed only to cope with emergencies, but may not be alert at the crucial time. The 2009 crash of an Air France plane in the south Atlantic exemplified that. On the other hand, suicidal pilots have actually caused devastating crashes. Do we really think the public will ever be content to embark on a plane with no pilot on board at all? I doubt it, although for air freight, pilotless planes may be acceptable. Pilotless aircraft without passengers, especially small delivery drones, seem to have a promising future. Indeed, in Singapore, there are plans to avoid robotic delivery vehicles at ground level by replacing them with drones flying above the streets. But even for these, we are too complacent about the risk of collisions, especially if there is a huge proliferation in numbers.

For ordinary cars, software errors and cyberattacks cannot be ruled out. We are already seeing the hackability of their ever more sophisticated software and security systems. Can we confidently protect brakes and steering against being hacked? Computers can handle big data. AI will enable machines to control traffic flows, through smart motorways and so forth, and that should lead to an unalloyed benefit in reducing congestion for human drivers. But, as the report says, the effect of driverless cars on congestion when mixed with ordinary traffic could go either way.

An oft-quoted benign advantage of driverless cars is that we will hire and share them rather than own them. This could have the huge benefit of reducing the amount of space needed for parking in our city. But what is not clear is how far that will go: whether the wish to own one’s own car will indeed disappear, except among the Mr Toad or petrol head tendency, or if, on the other hand, it will remain widespread, in which case we will lose the benefit.

Finally, if driverless cars catch on, they will clearly boost road traffic at the expense of rail. Many of us now prefer the train for a 200-mile journey: it is less stressful than driving, and we can work or read. I certainly do. But if I had a chauffeur, I would go by car, with the advantage of door-to-door service. Therefore, if I had a driverless car, I would go that way, too, as I am sure would many. So if fully driverless cars on ordinary roads became safe and acceptable, they would surely reduce the capacity required on long-distance train routes, and quench the already dubious justification for the Himalayan investment in HS2. That is another reason why we need the studies to firm up if and when fully automated vehicles could be deployed.