Amendment 8

Automated Vehicles Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 6 February 2024.

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Lord Holmes of Richmond:

Moved by Lord Holmes of Richmond

8: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“Statement of accessibility principles(1) The Secretary of State must prepare a statement of the principles that they propose to apply in assessing, for the purposes of this Part, whether an automated vehicle meets the required level of accessibility. (2) The principles must make provision for the accessibility of—(a) physical features and structures of the automated vehicle,(b) computer and software systems used in the automated vehicle, and(c) where relevant, booking platforms and other interactive digital services and systems used prior to, during and after using an automated vehicle, including through underpinning such services and systems with mechanisms to allow human intervention if required.(3) In preparing the statement under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must consult such persons they consider appropriate, in particular disabled people.(4) The statement under subsection (1) should include consideration of the accessibility of infrastructure with which automated vehicles must interact, such as pavements, kerbs, drop off and parking points.”

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak to this group of amendments. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register, not least my technology interest as an adviser to Boston Limited. In moving Amendment 8 I will also speak to Amendments 18 to 24 and 27. I thank all noble Lords who have shown an interest in these amendments, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who has put her name to all of them.

I will briefly take a step back. The major difficulty with the tone and tenor of this Bill on accessibility is that it takes a particularly utilitarian view—the greatest good for the greatest number. In this instance, accessibility is not even in the vehicle’s back seat. Similarly, it suggests that a disabled person should wait, and let innovation take its course and come to them. This is not only unacceptable but not pro-innovation. The whole point of accessibility, inclusive by design from the outset, is that it does not only enable and empower disabled people; it enables, empowers and benefits all people.

Similarly, there is a hint throughout the Bill that regulation is, again, anti-innovation. It can be—we have all seen examples of that—but in no sense is that inevitable just because it is regulation. Right-sized regulation can, indeed must, be pro-innovation. Plenty of good examples in our recent past, from various sectors, prove that.

Amendment 8 in my name is a resubmission of one of my major amendments from Committee. We heard in the previous group about the statement of safety principles. It seems perfectly logical, indeed thoroughly positive, to have a statement of accessibility principles in the Bill. If the Minister is unable to accept this amendment in its current form, will he commit, when he winds up, to the principles set out in this statement of accessibility?

Amendments 18 to 20, in various ways, ensure the accessibility of the vehicles themselves, in various parts of the Bill as drafted. Amendment 21 would require that disabled people be consulted on the granting of permits. This could be structured in such a way that disabled people would not need to be consulted at the micro level, on every permit; a structure could be put in place to ensure meaningful and effective consultation of disabled people throughout that high-level process.

Amendment 22 seeks to move a “may” to a “will”, to guarantee the intent of the Bill. Again, “may” is obviously conditional, and this would show, in a small example, the sense that this is wider than the voluntary or advisory “may”. It is an important amendment—changing to “will” would guarantee this sense. Similarly, Amendment 23 would assure this level of accessibility throughout.

Amendment 24, on the reporting requirement, seeks a minor but important change to the Bill. As currently drafted, the Bill sets out reporting requirements for those involved in automated vehicles. This amendment simply suggests that the first of these reports should be published before any of these vehicles are deployed—a small but important change.

Finally, Amendment 27 would put an obligation on the Secretary of State to commission and pay due regard to research around all elements of accessibility, including the vehicle, software systems and platforms, to ensure not just that the vehicle is accessible but that the whole experience and system are accessible and inclusive by design.

We are talking not only about inclusive by design but about a set of amendments that would make a real, material difference, not just to disabled people but to all users. Are they necessary? Just look at the situation we are currently in, with accessibility and inclusive design not being present at the beginning of the whole process of the development of automated vehicles. This is a clear indicator of the necessity of these amendments. Inclusion and innovation are important, but, more than that, inclusion for innovation is the thread that we should see shining through so many of our statutes: inclusion for innovation and not just for business. We must make it all our business. That is what these amendments are about. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his work in setting out such an effective group of amendments on this topic. I also thank the Minister for the very helpful round-table meeting we had a few days ago, in which we went through in detail many of the concerns that I, the noble Lord and others had.

I will not repeat the detail of the amendments that the noble Lord has outlined. I start from a slightly different perspective. When we started debating the Bill, back at Second Reading, the Minister told us that we did not need to worry about this because the regulatory authorities would be required to obey the public sector equality duty. I pointed out that the House of Lords Select Committee on disability was very concerned that there are holes in the PSED that the Government said they would look at two years ago and have not as yet, and so to rely on that would give us real cause for concern.

The Equality Act refers to “reasonable adjustments”, and it was prayed in aid that there can always be reasonable adjustments. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, is in his place. I am reminded of his Private Member’s Bill—which I think he called the “10 kilogram cement bag” Private Member’s Bill. It would have made lots of small shops accessible to disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs. That is a “reasonable adjustment”, but we are not in that position. We are talking about the technology of the future. It is really important to acknowledge that the millions of disabled people—over 10 million, or even more if you count the elderly—will require automated vehicles that take account of the full range of disability. To not start designing that in from the very start would be a short-sighted approach.

Those of us who use wheelchairs know from experience that vehicles that have been adjusted with ramps are not only expensive but not particularly effective. To have a car that is built that way right from scratch, so that you do not have to move the exhaust pipe or the batteries, reduces the cost but also means that the car is more effective. It is even more important with this technology of the future that all these things are designed in from the start.

In Committee, I said that one of the things that we disabled people chant on a regular basis is that there should be nothing about us without us, so I am grateful for the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, that would ensure that disabled people will be part of the continuing review in future, particularly with the reports that he is proposing. If we do not have disabled people involved in design right from the start, and if we do not design accessibility in right from the start, the automated vehicle of the future will not include millions of disabled or elderly passengers.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Conservative 4:45, 6 February 2024

My Lords, I support all the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond on disabled access, except Amendment 8. I should say that I added my name to the amendments, but belatedly. I think my name is on them in the online list but not in the printed listed today.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that I think my disabled access Bill is number 14 or 15 in the Private Members’ ballot yet again. It is a simple little measure that says that if a step is less than 12 inches, it should have a ramp for disabled access. Of course, it will not get anywhere; the equality department will block it, as it has blocked it every single time, because it no longer gives a damn about disabled people.

On automated vehicles generally, I am afraid that I trust no one on their safety—not the manufacturers and not the Department for Transport. The only person I trust on them is Jeremy Clarkson. I remember when he said to the chief of Audi, who was boasting about his new automated vehicle, “If you sit in the back, let your vehicle drive the Bolivian highway of death and come out the other side, then I’ll buy one”. That is my view on automated vehicles.

However, my concern today is about automated vehicles for hire as cabs. I have never used Uber in my life. I believe it is a disreputable company which does not pay its drivers properly. Its untrained drivers do not have a clue where they are going, and, if I may say so carefully, many seem to be recent arrivals in this country; they cannot find their way to the end of the street without a satnav, and then they stop wherever the satnav tells them to stop or pick up, such as on zebra crossings or in the middle of the road—the dropped kerb that wheelchair users use is one of their favourites. My main concern is that if black cabs in London, or converted Peugeots or Fiat Doblòs in the rest of the country, are wiped out by Uber’s Toyota Priuses, we in wheelchairs will never get a cab again. I do not rate Uber Access as credible if you want to hire a car this decade.

Has my noble friend the Minister heard of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee? It is part of his department. I have in my hand a piece of paper produced by the department. It says that taxi services must be fully accessible for all disabled persons. It calls for WAVs—wheelchair accessible vehicles—for all, and commends London cabs, 100% of which are wheelchair accessible. It goes on to say that, in the country as a whole, only 58% of taxies are wheelchair accessible vehicles, as are only 2% of private hire vehicles. I shall quote verbatim one paragraph from the department’s wheelchair accessible committee:

“Concerningly, the situation seems to be deteriorating. The launch of Uber and other app-based systems for booking PHVs has resulted in an increase of over 4% in the number of licensed vehicles. But they are nearly all PHVs and, in London, there has been a reduction in the number of licensed taxis which has resulted in an overall fall in the number of WAVs on the road”.

That is what will happen throughout the country if the Government permit all automated vehicles to become PHVs or taxis without building in a wheelchair accessible requirement.

Just look at the chaos in California and San Francisco in particular. Have noble Lords seen on the news a single wheelchair accessible cab there among the thousands of lovely dinky cars, such as Ford Focuses and Toyota Priuses? The Prius and the Focus are marvellous little town cars—great runabouts—but I cannot get my dodgy legs in the back of them, even when I am not trying to get a wheelchair into them.

I say to my noble friend that I do not support Amendment 8. I hope he will not push it, because it would apply to all cars and that is wrong. People must have the right to buy any vehicle they choose, even if you cannot swing a cat in the back of it. Before Cats Protection issues a fatwa, let me make it clear that I am referring to the cat-o’-nine-tails, not pussycats.

I hope the Government will insist that any new automated taxis are wheelchair accessible. If they make that clear in law now, vehicle manufacturers will design them—not that there is much to design; it has already been done. The new London black cabs are absolutely fantastic. They have excellent wheelchair ramps, there is lots of space and, for the first time, they seem to have added springs to them. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Borwick on making that happen. So we can just stick the automated computer thingy on to those cabs, or the converted Peugeots I found in other parts of the country. The Peugeot Tepee, they are calling it—what a ghastly name that is. There are Mercedes Vitos, Citroën Berlingos and Fiat Doblòs. All have wheelchair access. So with automated vehicles it is a simple matter of sticking a computer thing on to the vehicles that are there already. I do not want the Government saying, “Oh, this is going to be disproportionate cost and it is a burden on the industry”. It is not.

We were slowly getting more and more wheelchair-accessible vehicles across the country. The Government must ensure that the new technology of automated vehicles does not set that into reverse, as is likely to happen unless some of these amendments are made—but not Amendment 8.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I might add a word for the very large number of people who are not in wheelchairs but who depend, like I do, on a stick. When pavements are so awful in this country, they need a lot of consideration. They walk around at their peril, often due to the irresponsible use of scooters, which are insufficiently regulated by the department.

Photo of Lord Hampton Lord Hampton Crossbench

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 8, 18 to 20, and 27, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to which I have added my name. In Committee, I was struck by the powerful speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, whom we have often heard in your Lordships’ House talking so powerfully about her lived experiences.

This is not a once-in-a-generation nor a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it is a new, unique opportunity for disabled people to be front and centre of the development of a transport system. A great friend of mine is blind and when we first met, he had a clunky old phone with Braille on it. As soon as the iPhone came out, he had a phone with perfect accessibility built in. There was nothing new there. He has the same iPhone as everybody else. It just has the features to work for him, and I think this is what we can do with automated vehicles.

Elderly or disabled people, who have never dreamed of owning a car, can now look to the near future and see that this is a possibility—but only if they are included in all stages. As a design and technology teacher, I am all over inclusive design. This is not a bolt-on. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said he wanted this bolted on to existing stuff, I want this designed from the ground up. It is a unique—and I mean unique—opportunity to give disabled people a level playing field. It must not be squandered. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative

My Lords, while I support the general principle of these comments—indeed, I personally made great changes to the taxi industry to get there—the particular circumstances that enabled me to do that a long time ago were very unusual.

The current situation with autonomous vehicles is that there are many manufacturers that are converting existing vehicles. They cannot change their donor vehicles to make them accessible for disabled people, however desirable that might be. Tesla, Waymo, Cruise, Wayve, Oxa and, indeed, Mercedes are all working on autonomous vehicles, but they are not likely or able to change their vehicles to make them accessible because they must be accessible from the original design. Automotive history goes back 120 or even 150 years. We are not able to change existing vehicles, however desirable that is.

What these clauses would do is stop disabled people being helped by autonomous vehicles coming along. I am thinking particularly of people disabled by a severe learning difficulty who would not be able to learn to drive, or safely drive, a normal vehicle who would not be able to drive as a passenger. I am afraid the clauses would prevent these manufacturers from coming into this market. They would rather go to a market where they could use their existing vehicles than make the changes.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, for outlining the current commercial position, but there are models of vehicle currently on the market that can be used for wheelchairs. I fail to understand why, if an entire nation’s rules say that that is the model that has to be followed, manufacturers would not swiftly follow suit. There might be a transition period—does he understand that?—but all the images that we see of autonomous vehicles in the future show a completely different style from even 10 years ago, let alone 100 years ago. Would he agree with that?

Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative

I agree with the noble Baroness, but the question for a manufacturer is whether or not to come into the British market. That is the trouble, as I see it. Much as it would be desirable that they redesigned their vehicles, or indeed designed them from the very beginning to be accessible, the reality is that we are talking about regulating a future market based on an existing product. I find it a great shame that that is the position we are in, but that is where we are.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, frequently during the passage of the Bill we have all discussed the fact that the entire Bill is regulating for the future. It seems that it is acceptable to regulate for the future of everything —except disability access and proper accessibility.

Photo of Lord Borwick Lord Borwick Conservative

I find it distressing to disagree with the noble Baroness, but I am talking about the reality of the position. Even though I wish the world were different, I cannot agree that we can regulate to make it different in this one Bill.

I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for his comments. I am afraid I left the London taxi business a long time ago so I am not actually responsible for the current vehicles, but still I thank him. They are better in all respects than the ones I produced, which are still in business.

It is distressing that so few taxis around the country outside London are not accessible; the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, had her own problems in Watford, as I understand it. It would be so much easier to organise that all taxis all over the country were as wheelchair accessible as the ones in London. I would find that a much more useful use of our time than making these amendments, much as I support the general principle behind them.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 5:00, 6 February 2024

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, because I think he underestimates the market that will be created. I do not for one minute think that EU countries with high social standards, for example, or the United States of America, will not have a reasonably sized market of people who are elderly and disabled, and that there will not be a demand for vehicles of this sort. The vehicles will be created, and the market will be there as well as here. We are talking about enlarging the market. Instead of diminishing the market, so that it is only for people who are physically able-bodied, we are enlarging it to include a lot of other people, who will be very dependent on vehicles of this sort.

We are gazing into the future. It will not be fundamental if we get some aspects of this wrong, because we will be able to put it right in future legislation. But if we get this aspect of the Bill wrong, it will prove very costly to change course on the design of vehicles, which will have been conceived and built the wrong way. We will then face costs of adjustment as well as huge social costs, because we will have a generation of people who are stuck at home rather than being able to use vehicles as they should be able to.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, I will not take up the House’s time. We have nothing to add to this debate, although it has been very interesting. I have to deliver our judgment, which is that we are pretty sympathetic to this group. Much will depend on what the Minister says, and the extent to which he is able to give assurances may cause our view to change, but we are broadly sympathetic and will listen carefully to the response of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, particularly those who joined me for a detailed discussion following Committee.

The Government want all parts of society, including those with disabilities, to be able to reap the benefits of self-driving technology; I see no disagreement between us on that point. The question at hand is not one of ambition but rather the most appropriate form and timing of intervention.

It bears repeating that we are all dealing with an industry in its infancy. It is not clear what kinds of services will ultimately come forward, and therefore what kind of accessibility provisions are appropriate. What is clear, however, is that if we try to compensate for that uncertainty with unnecessarily broad requirements, the greatest risk is that the industry simply does not develop at all.

If we want self-driving technology to serve the needs of disabled people, we must have a viable self-driving industry in the first place. That is why we have anchored our approach in the recommendations put forward by the law commissions. Their central conclusion on this issue was that our focus should be on gathering evidence and gaining experience. On their recommendation we have built reporting on accessibility into the new passenger permit scheme and have committed to using this learning to develop national accessibility standards for permits. Although we will do so in a more flexible, non-statutory form, it is on their recommendation that we are establishing an accessibility advisory panel to inform that process. We will of course also draw on the deep and hugely valuable expertise of our existing statutory Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee.

Alongside this, the Government will continue to support the development of accessible self-driving vehicle designs. This investment has already helped five separate projects to deploy accessible vehicles, and there will be further opportunities as part of our £150 million CAM pathfinder fund, announced last year.

Beginning with Amendment 8, the authorisation process exists to ensure that self-driving vehicles operate safely. It is not designed to regulate the physical construction of vehicles. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Borwick points out, most developers are currently working to incorporate self-driving systems into existing, mass-produced models, not creating new vehicles from scratch.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

That is not actually what is happening in the marketplace. General Motors has developed the Wayve vehicle, which is now being used in San Francisco. If the regulation is there, the market is already ready and large companies such as General Motors are already making the provision.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I hear what the noble Lord says and am not going to argue with him on that at this point. Where there are overlaps between safety and accessibility, for example in the training of human detection systems, these will be addressed as part of the statement of safety principles. Beyond this, accessibility provisions are best made at the service level, of which vehicle design is just one part.

That is why our approach focuses on understanding how services can best be delivered for disabled users, which can then inform standard permit requirements. As drafted, the amendment would also apply these accessibility principles to any vehicle authorised as self-driving. That would include everything from private cars to vans, HGVs and even tractors. This would be disproportionate and out of step with the way we regulate conventional vehicle designs.

While Amendments 18 and 20 focus on passenger service provision, they could impose design requirements that are simply too sweeping to be workable. Requiring that every automated passenger service vehicle be “accessible to disabled people” would likely require adaptions, including full wheelchair accessibility. Imposing this requirement on the full self-driving passenger service fleet would be disproportionate, and not something we require of conventional taxis and private hire vehicles. This would make the UK market unviable, to the detriment of all users, including those with disabilities. As colleagues have noted, the needs of disabled people are broad and diverse. I note that even vehicles that claim to be 100% wheelchair accessible frequently cannot accommodate the full range of motorised and larger chairs.

Amendment 19 looks to apply the accessibility requirements of existing taxi, private hire and public service vehicle legislation to the passenger permitting scheme. This would not have the desired effect, as these requirements are largely imposed on the human driver. Furthermore, novel automated services may not fit neatly into these traditional modal schemes. Indeed, this is the very challenge that the law commissions were looking to tackle when they recommended the approach we are now taking. Nevertheless, I recognise the points that my noble friend makes and undertake to reflect on how we can best align our standard permitting conditions with the spirit of the Equality Act. These will also reflect the Bill’s specific requirements to consider the needs of older and disabled people before any permit can be issued.

I turn now to some details of the permitting system. Amendment 22 places an unnecessarily high burden on issuing authorities to guarantee that permits enable learning and improve understanding. The Bill already requires that authorities consider the likelihood of this. A more stringent standard would be impractical and add little value. Applicants will naturally be required to provide evidence of their plans for accessibility reporting as part of their permit application. Pre-deployment reports of the kind proposed by Amendment 24 would therefore be redundant.

The reporting process is outcome focused, requiring providers to explain what they are doing to meet the needs of disabled users. Vehicle accessibility could naturally be one of the many inputs that help to do this. I contend that a separate reference, as proposed by Amendment 23, is therefore also unnecessary.

Amendment 21 would require that relevant disability groups be consulted before each permit was issued. Consultation with such groups will naturally form part of developing the national minimum standards for permits. To require separate consultation for each individual permit would be excessively onerous and there would be considerable ambiguity as to which groups would be relevant in each case. Both these issues could severely inhibit the growth of new services.

Amendment 27 would require the Government to annually commission and pay due regard to research on self-driving vehicles’ accessibility. I have already described some of the work that we are undertaking in this space, which will of course continue. However, the wording of this requirement is too general to be effectively implemented and enforced.

I wholly appreciate the strength of feeling on these issues. By explaining the position taken by the Government and the law commissions, I hope that I have been able to offer at least some assurances.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, and the Minister and his officials for their engagement between Committee and Report.

I will take a couple of points that my noble friend Lord Borwick raised as I entirely understand where he is coming from. The difficulty is that, if one is talking about logic, everything that currently is in place would need to necessarily remain as it is until it ceases to be, and then we could start again in terms of accessibility and inclusion. The Palace of Westminster is not perfect, but it is pretty accessible. Changes were made and compromises had to be given—and it is a grade 1 listed palace.

I say to all the businesses currently involved in this that I see the argument that the choice of vehicle—described as a donor vehicle—has not been able to be made accessible. One would assume that all the systems, software and platforms used, as they have been built from scratch, are fully accessible to blind, learning disabled and older people—indeed all people whose needs must be catered for. If those platforms and software systems are not accessible, that tells rather a large truth about what we are considering.

It is desperately disappointing that we find ourselves in this situation, when the promise of automated vehicles is accessible mobility for all, enabled through human-led technology. It is pretty clear that we are not quite there yet. I hope there will be greater changes and much more thought and reflection, potentially between Report and Third Reading. There is so much that needs to be done on access and inclusion. It is hard for me to make this decision but, having considered this deeply, sadly I find myself in the position of withdrawing my amendment at this stage.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Clause 3: Power to authorise

Amendment 9 not moved.

Clause 38: General monitoring duty