Contributory negligence etc

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 16 March 2017.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:15, 16 March 2017

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 3, page 3, line 6, at end insert—

“(3) The Secretary of State may by regulations define when it is and is not appropriate for a person in charge of the vehicle to allow the vehicle to drive itself.”

This amendment requires the Government to provide regulatory guidance for when it is and is not appropriate for a person to allow an automated vehicle to drive itself.

Our amendment would allow the Secretary of State to define by regulations when it is appropriate for a person in charge of a vehicle to allow it to drive itself, because under subsection (2), the insurer or owner

“is not liable under section 2 to the person in charge of the vehicle where the accident that it caused was wholly due to the person’s negligence in allowing the vehicle to drive itself when it was not appropriate to do so.”

We are talking about the realm of automated vehicles, so this issue warrants some discussion. It should always be appropriate to allow the vehicle to drive itself—that is the whole purpose, but perhaps we can explore it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that if, when someone gets into an automated vehicle, a dashboard warning light said, “Software error: do not move”, and they ignored it, that would indeed be a case where they should not have proceeded to use the vehicle?

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We will consider in what situations it would be inappropriate to continue in that mode. If he bears with me, I will come to that. A great advantage of automated vehicles is to allow people with disabilities and without capacity to enjoy the same freedoms as we do. If they are in that environment, it would be somewhat difficult, as I am sure he would concede, to impose an obligation on certain individuals to do the very thing that he is suggesting, so I would be grateful if he bears with me.

As the clause is drafted, whether or not it was appropriate for the person in charge of a vehicle to allow it to drive itself has a consequence for negligence, but the Bill does not outline when it is appropriate or not for a vehicle to be used in automated mode—it talks about it, but it does not tell us. I accept that it might not be appropriate in some circumstances for vehicles to drive themselves. For example, early automated vehicles might be deemed safe to use only on motorways and not on some urban roads. Perhaps a known fault with the software that manages the function might have come to people’s attention, so using it would be inappropriate. I wonder whether the true intent of subsection (2) was to focus on bi-modal vehicles, because to my mind it is a bit of a nonsense to apply it universally to fully automated vehicles.

One of the primary purposes of part 1 of the Bill is to provide a framework to give insurers, manufacturers and potential users greater clarity, providing confidence and encouraging progress on automated vehicles. However, it is still not clear from the Bill what the Government have in mind about when their use would be inappropriate. I do not propose to press the amendment to a vote at this stage, but I think the Minister has got the point I am making. We are asking for regulations to be brought forward that better define those circumstances, because we cannot afford to have any fudging or confusion. People must be clear where there obligations lie. If we are to see the growth of the industry as we all wish, we do not want to leave this issue hanging over it.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

It just occurred to me when the hon. Gentleman mentioned manufacturers that some of the conditions or stipulations for when the vehicle should not be driven should derive from the manufacturers rather than Government regulations, although I am not sure how that could be worked in with his amendment.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

That is an excellent observation. That could form part of the regulations, so that the obligation sits with the manufacturer to ensure that the situation we are describing is avoided. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which highlights the lack of clarity about describing the circumstances in which it is inappropriate for the vehicle to drive itself. Somebody could get into the vehicle, fully anticipating it to be totally automated and expecting to be free to eat their fish and chips or make the cup of tea that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West referred to with impunity. If that is not the case, we need clarification of when those circumstances arise, especially when we talk about issues concerning capacity, capability and so on.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

GK Chesterton said:

“The centre of every man’s existence is a dream.”

To dare to dream is to drive us beyond the prosaic towards the sublime. For me, the achievement of the sublime is indispensable from a redistribution of advantage in society. To redistribute advantage we must seize opportunities where they do not exist, in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman described. To seize the opportunity to travel for those to whom, for no other reason than their incapacity, it is currently unavailable would indeed be the achievement of a dream leading to the sublime, so he is right that we need to get the circumstances in which people can achieve that right now, but we also need to be mindful of the fact that as the technology develops there will be a need to do more.

Therefore, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for further regulation. There will certainly be a need to look at Road Traffic Acts, because of what he queried in respect of the obligations of very vulnerable people. We will certainly need to look at that. That is a matter for future standards and Road Traffic Acts rather than the Bill, but I fully acknowledge that that will need to be a part of the legislative package that is bound to emerge as a result of these changes.

The Bill is very much a first step, as we have all acknowledged. It is a first step that, rather strangely, as he pointed out, begins with insurance. It does not begin with insurance because of any philosophical or doctrinal belief that insurance matters most, but it certainly matters enough to stop further investment and development. That is why insurance is the beginning of the process. In the end, the other adjustments to law and the publication of regulations will be necessary to achieve some of what he has described. We therefore recognise entirely the need to put in place a proper regulatory framework in this area. This is about the safe deployment and safe use of automated vehicles. It is also about public confidence, which was raised this morning by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, who is not now in his place. By doing what he said subsequent to the Bill, and through the passage of the Bill, we will send a signal to the industry and the wider public that we are indeed at the beginning of that journey, which I hope might lead us to the sublime.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out by way of illustration that we consulted on changes to The Highway Code and the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 to support remote parking systems, because there are also Highway Code issues associated with the changes. We are looking at how the existing regulatory framework will need to be amended, leading up to a series of incremental changes that will take us to the place where full automation will become accepted by the public and available through the industry.

I must not compliment the hon. Member for Middlesbrough so much so early, because not only might that encourage him to believe that I will do so throughout our consideration—at some point I might no longer wish to do so—but also because it make him a trifle big-headed, and I would not want to do that. However, he is also right about the likely first stages of the development. He is right to point out, as has been written elsewhere, that automated vehicles might initially be used in particular circumstances in particular modes. Some of the developments that manufacturers are researching, considering and rolling out are likely to be for use on motorways, as he said, or in particular driving conditions. As part of the incremental change I have described, it is possible that automated vehicles will be used in specific situations, or what are sometimes called “use cases”. This would involve a kind of geo-fencing of vehicles, defining when and where they are used—perhaps in part of a city or something of that kind, or perhaps on high-speed roads exclusively.

It is also important to point out that we are not considering this matter in isolation. The development of the technology is international and, as I described earlier, international regulations will create a set of safety standards leading to type approvals that may reflect that limited case use. It is also likely that those regulations will contain requirements for the vehicle to be able to detect where it is, so that the system can be used only in those situations that are designated or defined. It is not clear whether we need to make matching regulatory changes in our domestic framework, but if we do, we could use existing legislative vehicles. We typically use the Road Traffic Act 1998 to revise existing or create new road vehicle construction and use regulations to reflect and reinforce those international regulations.

I acknowledge also that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that further work will need to be done. I am not sure that the Bill is the right place to do that—by the way, I do not think he is suggesting that—but it is the right place to ask that question. I freely acknowledge that the issues he raised about obligations, specificity—how a vehicle might be used in what circumstances—and so on will require further consideration, consultation and regulatory measures. With that assurance I hope we can move on in the spirit of harmony and agreement to which I have attempted to add by my not excessive but generous compliments.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:30, 16 March 2017

I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very kind and generous. However, I do not want to misquote him, but he seems to have set out a strong argument for a regulatory framework, the better to describe the circumstances in which it would be unsafe to allow a vehicle to be conducted in the automated mode. In fact, he set out a number of circumstances where that would be relevant.

The Minister also referred the Committee to international standards and to international regulatory application in this case, but we have no information before us about how that would address the current situation in an evolving market for an evolving technology. I am struggling to understand where the deficit would be if we were to commit to a regulatory framework to address the issues—not by saying, here and now, what would be in it, but simply by saying “That is what we are going to so. We recognise it needs to be done.” I am not persuaded that this is not the right time and place to do that very thing.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Perhaps I may intervene, to avoid the need for another speech by me—which is probably unnecessary, although it would be widely welcomed. I do commit to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Global regulations will develop. Such discussions are happening worldwide, of course, and the manufacturers are international in both their reach and their location. We will introduce regulations that are in tune with those regulations. Let us not forget that the Bill is about insurance—about a first step in establishing enough legislative work to allow insurance to be put in place. We will commit to taking further necessary steps along the way.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Minister is very persuasive. He has made things very clear. Although I feel some disappointment that we are not dealing with the matter now, his unequivocal commitment to bringing forward regulations at some later stage terminates the discussion as far as I am concerned. I am grateful for what the Minister has told us, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4