Examination of Witness

Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:41 pm on 31st October 2017.

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Quentin Willson gave evidence.

We are now quorate, so we can hear from Clive Efford, but first I should say to our witness, as I do not want to be rude, that perhaps you should introduce yourself.

Quentin Willson:

I am Quentin Willson, motoring journalist and television presenter, who has been an electric car advocate for the last seven years. I advise and help OLEV and Go Ultra Low, promoting electric car use among the public. I have done 50,000 miles under the wheels of electric cars over the last seven years, and my day-to-day car is a Nissan Leaf.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

You certainly look good for having done 50,000 miles “under” the wheels.

Quentin Willson:

Absolutely!

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Anyhow, this is about automated vehicles. When automated vehicles and conventional vehicles share the roads, will the question of who is liable for accidents become more complicated?

Quentin Willson:

Enormously complicated. It is not my area of expertise, but the question I would ask is: can they co-exist peacefully? Can the connected and the unconnected in the UK’s very limited road space exist? Can those cars that drive themselves be allowed to co-exist with the cars that are driven by human beings? Will there necessarily be some friction during that period? I think that in the short to medium term, it is going to take some time.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Do you think that the legislation goes far enough on that? Do you think that there should be more in the Bill?

Quentin Willson:

I think we need to be very careful that we know exactly who is liable, because there will be quite a few accidents, whether it is the manufacturer, driver, network provider or road provider. It has to be established very early on.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q Can I move on to this issue about the transition from automated vehicle to a person taking over? We have heard various descriptions about the length of time that might take. You say that we need to be clear about the moment that the driver becomes responsible and the software is not, but is there an issue around safety caused by that transition?

Quentin Willson:

Inevitably you will get a feeling of complacency, of reliance on the technology, and if there is an emergency situation or you leave the automated road system to the non-automated road system, you will have to have that moment of what we call extreme alertness. Consumers need to be trained for that and we need to be ready. If that is a legal transitional moment, where you take the wheel having been driven autonomously, that could be an issue as well.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q On the moral issues that are raised by algorithms that control these vehicles at a time when there is an accident, a scenario I used earlier on was that of a child stepping out in front of an automated vehicle, and to the left there is oncoming traffic and to the right there are pedestrians on the pavement. How do you legislate what you require of the vehicle in those circumstances?

Quentin Willson:

I do not think that artificial intelligence will ever be trained to be able to make those moral decisions, and when we take a driving test we are not trained to make them either, so it is a difficult area to think we can resolve. Can we ever expect artificial intelligence in an automated car to make that split-second moral decision between the child in the pushchair or the old people in the Nissan Micra? I do not think we can. We are not trained to do that and we cannot. It is a split-second thing that happens and legislating for it would be enormously difficult.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q So what will happen?

Quentin Willson:

I am not an expert on artificial intelligence in cars at the moment, but it will be, depending on the sensors, the object that has the least resistance.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Q I will leave it there. One last question on what is driving this forward—that was not an intentional pun. Is it the desire of companies that employ large workforces that drive vehicles which are striving for automated vehicles, or is it the demand from the public, which wants to sit comfortably behind the wheel and not have to think too much for long journeys?

Quentin Willson:

It is driven, I guess, by the fact that there is a huge world of opportunity here and that is predicated on the fact that people do not like driving anymore—there is congestion, it is expensive and it is difficult—and on the rent economy, whereby you summon an automated car on your smartphone and it comes to your door. When you look at the research, that is very attractive to the public. The golden era of getting pleasure from driving cars has gone, and I say that with some regret, but it is a fact. There was a survey by Catapult in Milton Keynes which asked this question: if you were to replace your current car with an autonomous car—we are not going to tell you what it is or what it looks like—would you be prepared to change to that autonomous car? Some 58% said that they would change to the autonomous car without knowing what it was, simply because of the liberation of not having to make those decisions and sit impotently in snarling traffic. It is partly driven by commerce and partly by the public.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

Is the Government’s target of 2044 for zero-carbon new cars ambitious enoughQ ?

Quentin Willson:

I sat before this Committee a year ago and was broadly optimistic about the short and medium-term future of electric cars. I think Michael Gove’s announcement in July, coupled with Sadiq Khan’s T-zones and ClientEarth’s relentless pushing on air quality issues, has terrified consumers. It has wiped probably £30 billion off the value of diesel cars. Lease companies are now looking at a collapse in the residual values of the cars that they lease to consumers on personal contract purchase. We are looking at a real issue in the short to medium term.

The consumer now feels that he or she cannot buy a diesel car; we have seen sales of diesel cars absolutely collapse over the last quarter. They are feeling, “Right, I’ve got to buy an electric car.” We need to manage their expectations. I am quite concerned that people who rely on one car as the family vehicle will go out and buy, like me, a second-hand Nissan Leaf for £10,000. That is great, but we must understand that those cars’ ranges are nowhere near viable for an everyday, use-it-all-the-time car. They are a wonderful urban solution, but long journeys—anything more than 100 miles—are really difficult. I came down here in an alternative car; I had to leave my Nissan Leaf at home, because getting here would have required three stops to charge.

It is about managing consumer expectations. Otherwise, this whole thing will go horribly wrong. The new Nissan Leaf, which I saw in Oslo last week on its launch, has a quoted official figure of 235 miles to one charge, but the Nissan engineers tell me that in reality, it is 175 miles for everyday driving. If you drive that car on the motorway at 70 mph, that will fall to about 130 or 140 miles. The technology of the lithium ion battery still has some considerable work to do.

Again, it is all predicated—the mass adoption of electrification in the short to medium term—on having better battery density, maybe of alternative materials such as graphene, and a very robust charging infrastructure network. I am not talking about on-street chargers; I am talking about charging hubs like petrol stations, with 20 rapid chargers that can charge 20 cars in 40 minutes. That is the only way that mainstream consumers will be able to do any form of distance. They are wonderful for town work, but if you are doing more than 100 miles, you are still compromised.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

Q To follow on from that, it is interesting what you say about the conundrum of managing consumer expectations so that people do not buy a vehicle that might not suit their purposes. Going forward, when the technology allows, given that it was UK Government policy that drove the flux of diesel vehicles, does there come a point when the Government should incentivise a diesel scrappage scheme to get that mass ownership?

Quentin Willson:

I would rather spend that money on the NHS. Here is an irony: we talk constantly about air quality, but in the MOT, there is no proper smoke test, although it is called a smoke test. The particulates come out the back, and the MOT examiner will fail the car if it loses rearward visibility. If you cannot see out the back when the car is accelerating, it fails. That is why you see all these cars puffing out black particulates. If we stiffened up the MOT with a proper particulate test and then automatically scrapped these cars, a lot of which are old and worn out and pollute much more than we realise, we would not have to finance a scrappage scheme. Consumers would realise, “This car is knackered; it’s got to go anyway.” But at the moment, there is no mandate against either petrol or diesel cars that really pollute.

Again, on the air quality debate, I am not sure that we will solve urban air quality with electrification alone. Even though we get massive amounts of people driving electric cars in cities, we still have 30% of particulate and NOx from industrial combustion, 20% from domestic combustion, 14% from ground machinery such as diggers, trucks, dumpers and cranes—these are London Assembly figures—5% from HGVs, 8% from vans and 9% from buses. We do not know the contributions from aviation and shipping. Certainly in London, with 20 million tonnes of stuff coming in on the Thames tidal, the fact that that is not even quantified worries me greatly. We do not want the unintended consequences of this not to affect air quality significantly and, in the meantime, blow the GDP of a generation while doing it. That is my worry. The fact that we do not know enough about this, and that it is being pushed and pushed and terrifying consumers, is of great concern to me.

Thank you for that admirably clear answer.

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

Q You talked about getting drivers behind this because they know it is the right thing to do, and that drivers are frightened. We are also trying to meet the environmental targets that the Government have set. Knowing car enthusiasts as you do, do you think that people will ever feel as enthusiastic and fanatical about electric vehicles as they do about Ferraris or other exciting cars?

Quentin Willson:

That group of car enthusiasts is quite small now. It is a very small percentage of the market. Most of us just see the grim business of getting from A to B as a necessity. As I said earlier, the idea of the open road with your Porsche 911 is a golden age that has passed. The Tesla P100D is the fastest accelerating car in the world. It does nought to 60 in 2.4 seconds. It is faster than a Ferrari, which is great. But in terms of mainstream electric cars, I think it will be a while before your hardcore car enthusiast really likes them. We have a big Clarksonesque blockage here—he does not like electric cars or the people who drive them—but I think he is an irrelevance and so are those car enthusiasts.

Our concern should be mainstream consumers who have to get to work, to school, to the shops and to hospitals. We have to make it easy, effective and inexpensive for them but also give them that range. Until we get rid of range anxiety through better infrastructure and battery technology, that will not happen. What will happen is that they will buy hybrids that will do 20 or 30 miles on electric but the rest on petrol. That does not really solve the problem, does it? The people in the Mitsubishi Outlanders who hog all the charging stations will do maybe 20 miles on electricity and the rest on petrol. Again, that is something we need to manage. We need to look at the far reaching, perhaps unintended, consequences of the decisions that we are making now.

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

Q Thank you for coming again; you will remember that we had an exchange when you came to the evidence session on the previous Bill. One would accept your view that we will not switch to electric vehicles overnight. Clearly, we do not want to eliminate the use of older classic vintage vehicles—my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire challenged me on that on Second Reading—but surely there is a good case for taking advantage of the improved battery technology, the greater affordability of electric cars as volume grows, the smoother ride that they give, and their many other virtues. I do not claim that electric cars are nirvana, but given that this will not happen just like that and some allowance will need to be made for the older vehicles that my right hon. Friend champions, surely you acknowledge that it is likely to happen and in the end it is quite a good thing?

Quentin Willson:

I agree. The older classic cars are a tiny proportion and their emissions are a raindrop echoing in an ocean because they are used so seldom—some for only 200 miles a year. We should not worry about them.

Mass electrification is coming, but until I see a step change in battery technology, we will not be able to give consumers the beatific vision of 300 to 350 miles to one 40-minute charge. Will that come by 2040? I do not know. You have heard from the car manufacturers. Will we be able to accelerate that technology? It is good that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has given the 2040 cut-off date, because up to now they have broadly been compliance cars made to keep emissions down for EU regulations. Manufacturers will be throwing everything they can at developing batteries, but someone like Jaguar Land Rover does not really have any electric product at all, and Mini has only just scrambled together one electric Mini that does not have a brilliant range. They have a lot of work to do to get to that level. It has taken us 100 years to get to the efficiency of the combustion engine as we have it now. I know innovation is not linear and it will start to climb up, but we need to understand that if we do not give consumers that 300 to 350 mile range, it is going to be very difficult. You see Teslas strolling down the motorways, because they do 250 miles to one charge. That is great, but you never see a Nissan Leaf—think about it.

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

Q Let us follow the logic of your argument. I agree the battery technology is a key determinant of take-up, as you described. Clearly, capital prices are a big issue too, and we have supported that over some time, but we acknowledge that until we get volumes up, prices are unlikely to fall significantly, in the way you describe. The third thing is the charging infrastructure. Confidence about being able to recharge on long journeys is critical to people’s acceptance of the technology. We have agreed that the move to electric is rather a good thing and we excluded the tiny number of vintage vehicles and classics. Do you acknowledge that the Bill is at least a step towards that? It begins to put together a framework of legislation when it takes account of infrastructure that will at least deal with one of our three shared perceptions about barriers to entry.

Quentin Willson:

Completely. We have a lot more consumer awareness to do. I will be doing events with a shopping centre group across the country where we have consumers coming and they have test drives of all these electric cars, plus everything you ever wanted to know about electric cars but never dared to ask, on stage. Go Ultra Low and OLEV do great work; I think we could do even more, but we could also incentivise universities to come up with technology. Danny Alexander and I talked about a battery prize of £10 million. Let us make it £50 million for the real world-class development of a battery that is lightweight and not dependent on rare earth metals. Half the cobalt in the world is in the Democratic Republic of Congo—that terrifies me.

If you can come up with the technology that creates this new, wonderful, miracle battery, then we lead the world and a lot of these problems just disappear, but we need to accelerate that process. The two things—the infrastructure and the battery technology—really need to run, because at the moment we are running too fast with this, because the technology is lagging behind. It is absolutely laudable that we do what we do and put the legislation in place and prepare consumers, but we have to make sure that that technology can support long journeys.

I am afraid you cannot expect consumers just to charge at home at night. They cannot do it. They will want to make journeys. This morning I got into my Nissan Leaf; I had 80 miles on the charge after an overnight charge. It was cold, so I had to defrost the windscreen and put the heater on. I took my daughter to school. The charge went down to 55 miles. If I wanted to go anywhere else, I would have to stop at the end of the 55 miles and charge for 40 minutes, if I could find a rapid charger. If I could not, I would have to do two or three hours. Realistically, we cannot expect consumers to do this in the short to medium term.

Thank you very much for your evidence, Mr Willson. As the owner of a beloved 25 year-old BMW, I am grateful that classic cars have a future. Sir Greg Knight will be even more grateful as he is the owner of several vintage cars.