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My Lords, it was a privilege to be on the Select Committee producing this report under the wise and excellent chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I begin by declaring my relevant interests: I am chairman of the Department for Transport’s Science Advisory Council and the current president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and I also head the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at Cambridge University.
“The government wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021”.
This is a bold ambition. It has to be asked: how realistic is it to put fully driverless cars on the public roads within four years? Our report addressed a range of issues to be resolved before we anticipate the widespread use of driverless cars on our roads. I will briefly comment on four: congestion, data sharing, skills and research.
My first point relates to congestion, which has been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. Many witnesses told our committee that CAVs for the roads sector are expected to improve traffic conditions and reduce congestion. But this is not obvious. It is likely that the theoretical potential of CAVs to reduce traffic congestion varies, depending on the level of vehicle autonomy and the proportion of CAVs on the roads. We were unable to say with any certainty what the impact on congestion will be. We thought it possible to imagine a situation of total gridlock as CAVs cautiously crawl around city centres. The Government acknowledged this uncertainty in their response to our report, highlighting the need for research to understand the possible impacts of CAVs on congestion on our road networks.
In the future, driverless cars could well bring a wide uptake of personal mobility as a service—one of the great potential benefits. In which case, car ownership could very substantially reduce, and city streets would no longer have nearly as many privately owned cars. This point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. This could be highly beneficial for our city road networks; a widespread absence of parked cars would certainly reduce congestion.
My second point relates to data sharing. Our report highlighted that it is essential that any data gathered from CAVs is used in accordance with data protection law. However, we pointed out that the meaning of personal data is unclear in the context of CAVs. It will be important to achieve privacy for individuals and communities while also using data to achieve efficiency and safety of CAV operations. But data relating to an individual’s vehicle on position, speed and performance on the road cannot be regarded as entirely personal. Such data is needed for public benefit if a CAV system is to operate effectively as a whole. Good data governance will therefore be required to secure appropriate protection of personal information while safely using and linking open and non-sensitive data. Sharing data for the public good means that some datasets are public, while others will be available only to certain parties. Distinctions will need to be made between commercially sensitive data owned by technology providers and open data.
This important point is also highlighted in the National Infrastructure Commission’s report Data for the Public Good, launched at the Institution of Civil Engineers last week. The report emphasises that data protection is fundamental to the development and successful deployment of smart city models and functions—this of course also applies to CAVs. The data governance review recently produced by the Royal Society and British Academy addresses the same issue. Public confidence in regulation and governance of data will be key to the successful exploitation of CAV technologies.
My third point relates to skills. Our report highlighted the urgent need to close the engineering and digital skills gap to ensure that the UK can benefit from the emerging CAV technologies. Last year, the Transport Systems Catapult published a report entitled, Intelligent Mobility Skills Strategy: Growing New Markets in Smarter Transport. It concluded that, in the wider intelligent mobility sector, which encompasses CAV technologies,
“The UK faces a potential skills gap of 742,000 people by 2025”.
This is a huge skills gap. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, also published last year, echoed these findings. Cranfield University told our committee that the shortage of engineers the UK faces threatens the development of CAV technology and the creation of applications for CAV. This point was also made in evidence from Professor Paul Newman of Oxford University. He questioned the effectiveness of the UK’s education system in delivering people with the right skills for the CAV sector. He said:
“I cannot overstate the importance of this: we need about 10,000 more engineers a year. We need to plough money into universities to teach information engineering, data engineering and software”.
In their response to our report, the Government acknowledged the need for investment right across the education and training pipeline—in universities, the further education sector and schools—to deliver people with the right skills for the CAV sector. My question to the Minister is, is enough being done to ensure that the potentially very large engineering and digital skills gap will be closed in the coming years?
My final point relates to research. The recent government announcement of the launch of MERIDIAN —a new co-ordination hub for CAV technologies testing—is to be welcomed. This important new initiative is part of the automotive sector deal recently announced in the Industrial Strategy White Paper. It will bring the automotive sector and academia together to form a cluster of excellence in autonomous vehicle testing and research.
As mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the Government plan to continue to support scientific research in AI robotics and related information technology at academic institutions. This too is to be welcomed. We need to ensure that the UK continues to have a world-leading research base in these crucial areas. While this type of research is vital for the success of CAVs for the UK, we must not forget the need for research on human interactions with CAVs—in other words, the social and behavioural questions relating to CAVs, most of which remain largely unanswered. Our report highlighted this and the Government have responded very positively. Research to understand the attitudes of the public to CAVs will be vital, particularly in the context of mixed fleets of driverless cars and traditional cars. Predictions suggest that we will have mixed fleets for at least 20 years. There are those who will always want to drive their cars: we will always have “Mr Toads”. With driverless and traditional cars together on the roads, will the public be prepared to trust and accept autonomous technologies? Without a high degree of public acceptance, the huge potential for driverless cars on our roads will not materialise.