Autonomous Last-mile Delivery

– in Westminster Hall at 4:37 pm on 23 May 2023.

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Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 4:37, 23 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the societal impacts of autonomous last-mile delivery.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Many of my colleagues from across the House have heard me speak at length on the thriving tech sector in Milton Keynes, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so once again. This time, I will be highlighting the wonderful role that Starship robots play in our city and the fantastic technology of automated last-mile delivery. I will cover some of the benefits that those cute little robots bring for the environment, accessibility, convenience and productivity, but I will start with the social side, particularly acceptance.

If we roll forward 20, 30 or 40 years, autonomous delivery robots will be all over. They will be in our homes, in our streets, online and so on—robots everywhere, in all aspects of our lives. Looking at how integration works, and at the Milton Keynes use case for robots, will give us real lessons for the future. I have talked extensively to my friends at Starship—the humans, not the robots—and it is clear that the process of social acceptance is at the heart of their success. What is social acceptance, and why is it important when it comes to integrating delivery robots in a complex urban environment?

Milton Keynes has an historical association with welcoming technological innovation, and with the technology sector. In fact, that was built into our city’s DNA in the 1960s. People have started families and built their lives here in MK because they have wanted to become part of a new way of urban and suburban living.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

Like Milton Keynes, Havant constituency is already home to several last-mile delivery facilities that sustain hundreds of local jobs. I hope that we will become a centre for autonomous delivery as the UK develops its leadership role in the fourth industrial revolution. Does my hon. Friend agree that, to maximise social impact and utility, the companies involved should work with local councils and communities to ensure that the technologies work for everybody?

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

I am grateful for the intervention. I absolutely agree. Culture works at every level. There is the culture of acceptance from people, and institutional culture. Integrated working by companies, councils and the wider community is fundamental to the success of any technological integration. We need to build a culture in which people, businesses and institutions look at innovation with excitement, pride and genuine curiosity. That kind of culture is not necessarily unique to Milton Keynes—I am sure it exists in other places—but cultivating it, so that we can build a process of innovation, is fundamental.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. I sought his opinion beforehand on what I am about to say. Does he agree that while autonomous delivery vehicles may provide a solution to carrying goods from local stores and restaurants and meeting the ongoing demand for last-mile delivery services, the need to secure local jobs for local people without complete reliance on technology is also vital? We should embrace new technologies, as they can help the environment, but we must also be able to function without a high-speed internet connection. In other words, people must see the benefits, and I am not sure that everyone will.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention, and for the tip-off about the crux of it. For me, innovation breeds productivity, but it does not necessarily come at the expense of jobs. In fact, increased productivity leads to further jobs, such as servicing the robots, and additional work for the companies that produce the groceries that are delivered. On his second point about internet connection, I absolutely agree. The whole thing relies on secure access to data and connectivity, which relates to both cyber-security and getting a good signal. That is not necessarily a problem in Milton Keynes, though we all have our notspots, but as we roll the technology out further around the country, it must be a real consideration.

I see Milton Keynes as the blueprint for how we roll out such advances. It should be a case study in how to implement new technologies in cities. As we do this kind of thing at a Government level, in a top-down way, we need to look at the places where innovation is already happening and successful. That will help us to navigate our way through the introduction of legislation. We can design perfect laws in this place, but if they do not work on the ground, we will find ourselves coming unstuck.

Recently I was pleased to be able to organise, with my hon. Friend Iain Stewart, a competition with Starship on Christmas designs for the delivery robots. We had hundreds of entries. It really brought home how enthusiastic and happy people are to be involved with the robots in Milton Keynes. I am fortunate enough to live in Milton Keynes and understand and be part of the culture. I know other Members have also seen the joy of these little robots roaming around the streets, and they will soon be hitting constituencies across the country. It adds to the character of communities and always makes me smile.

Robots can navigate themselves around objects and people using their cameras, and they carry food or parcels securely and safely. Travelling at around 4 mph, which is basically walking speed, they are inherently safe. It is necessary to highlight that point, because as we scale up the technology and roll it out around the country, it is vital that we bring local communities along with us, and give them the confidence they deserve. Without local support, we would not be able to move forward.

Further, there are economic, social and environmental impacts from autonomous delivery. That is clear to see. From a road efficiency perspective, more of these robots help to reduce traffic and congestion, particularly with Milton Keynes being a fast-growing city. These robots help to reduce costs for businesses and therefore for their customers. That will help businesses invest in jobs, growth and productivity. Simple solutions can make cities work better, and this is certainly one such solution.

Robots can also help us to achieve environmental goals. I am passionate about reducing carbon emissions, and Milton Keynes has always been rightly unapologetic in driving towards being a green city. We have taken huge steps towards achieving that, particularly in making Milton Keynes electric car friendly. I thank the Minister, while he is in his place, for the additional £1.6 million awarded to Milton Keynes City Council for better electric car charging infrastructure.

The robots and their autonomous last-mile delivery systems can help us to reduce road traffic. Less fuel is used, so there are fewer carbon emissions, and the robots are 32 times more energy efficient than normal 3-tonne delivery trucks. The technology can help us to make significant strides towards the goal set out in the Government’s net zero strategy if we can deploy the robots across the country.

However, despite the range of benefits I have outlined, I fear the UK may be in danger of lagging behind on effective legislative frameworks to foster the growth of this kind of transport technology. There is no legislation to support companies such as Starship Technologies in the change they are trying to bring about. Legislation from 1835—nearly 200 years ago—is acting as a barrier to new tech innovation and investment. I hope that the Minister shares my desire to see this legislation updated, so that it is fit for the 21st century.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

Like my hon. Friend, I want Britain to embrace advanced technologies, including last-mile robotic delivery services. Are there any countries from whose legislative framework he feels we could learn?

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

The country that springs to mind is Finland. The Finnish Government have introduced a proper legislative framework for autonomous delivery systems. Starship Technologies has signed a national partnership with the largest retailer in Finland, S Group, which is part of their growth strategy. Ultimately, that has been made possible because Finland introduced vehicle certification and regulations to govern robots. Its most recent piece of legislation covered robots. It has acted and got in front, and we must ensure that we keep step. Companies want to innovate and be part of the UK’s innovation culture. I want to keep them here.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I should admit that I was the leader of Trafford Council who signed off the current trial, although the trial is not taking place in my constituency now. The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about the importance of innovation. He is right that companies want to innovate, but local authorities do, too. I must say that it is rare to hear a Conservative Member praise a Labour-run council as fully as he has praised Milton Keynes City Council. Pete Marland and others in Milton Keynes will be delighted to hear such glowing praise for their forward thinking and their work. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that asking the Minister to unlock artificial intelligence’s potential in such a way that local authorities can embrace it will speed up roll-out considerably, and will allow all local authorities to get onboard with this technology, so that people across the country, and not only residents of boroughs such as mine, can enjoy it?

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that cheeky intervention. Of course, he will know as well as everybody else that Milton Keynes has not always had a Labour-led council. To answer the point he is making, yes, co-operation is key, but, quite simply, time is of the essence. We must continue to drive investment in policies that create real incentives to start and scale tech businesses, particularly in with the connected and automated mobility sector.

Clarity, consistency and certainty are what the sector needs. That is why we need to ensure we remain at the forefront of technological innovation. I know my colleagues from across the political spectrum, including in Milton Keynes, will agree that tech innovation has always been the hallmark of this great country. We must continue that great legacy, and ensure we give the tech industry the confidence it needs to invest in the UK and not in our rivals.

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 4:50, 23 May 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. First, I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Ben Everitt, on securing this important debate. I echo the points he made about the value that Starship Technologies robots have for communities in my constituency as well as his.

Autonomous last-mile delivery is an important subject. I am Chair of the Transport Committee, and we are holding an inquiry on not just last-mile delivery robots but self-driving vehicles more widely. The Minister was kind enough to give oral evidence to the Committee last week.

I will focus on three points: first, on the contribution that delivery robots can make to carbon savings; secondly, on social acceptance; and, thirdly, on regulation. Transport is now the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in this country. There is no single solution to that, but electrically powered, autonomous delivery vehicles can make an important contribution. I echo the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North made, and would urge people to look at how last-mile deliveries fit into the wider freight logistics industry. We cannot look at each part of it in splendid isolation. There is enormous potential for linking last-mile delivery robots to the wider supply chain, helping to decarbonise it as a whole.

The point about social acceptance is also critical, and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North articulated it well. The robots we have in Milton Keyes are a good indicator of how the public can be won over to autonomous technology. There are two contrasting examples at the moment. One example that has not worked is smart motorways, which still arouse great public fear, and scepticism that the technology can work and make smart motorways safe. The public in Milton Keynes, however, do accept delivery robots. The robots are cautious; they go at walking speed. I do not believe I have had a single bit of correspondence in my constituency from people objecting to them. They are part of the streetscape; I even saw a golden retriever sitting outside a local shop surrounded by them, and it was quite comfortable.

It is interesting that when people come to Milton Keynes who have not seen them, they usually say, “What are these funny things running around?”. For local people, they are just part of the streetscape. We cannot just bring in the new technology. It is important that the robots are given proper publicity, that the mapping is done and that we are cautious. I think Starship Technologies have done that in the right way.

The third point I will make is on regulation. The law is still a very grey area, particularly when it comes to the robots going on the pavements. There is a need to update that. In addition to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, I would say this: there is a risk that if we do not update our regulations, potential investment in this country will go elsewhere. There is a finite pot of investment money, and we want it in the UK. Another important aspect of regulation is attaining the right balance between a national framework and local flexibility, because what works in Milton Keynes might not work in Trafford, or in a cathedral city with much narrower streets and pavements. As well as a national framework, there has to be the ability to flex the regulations locally.

Robots have enormous potential for our society. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North referred to the Christmas competition launched last year to have a festive design for the robots. Members may not be aware that when the Starship robots arrive, they play a little tune. People can select which one they like—they include “Happy Birthday” and “Baby Shark”. Perhaps the Minister could launch a competition to find the most appropriate delivery tune for the robots to play when they arrive. He has already given me a couple of suggestions privately, but my challenge to him is to come up with the defining standard to celebrate these wonderful machines.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport) 4:56, 23 May 2023

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg.

I congratulate Ben Everitt on securing the debate. He comprehensively set out all the advantages of last-mile autonomous vehicles. He started by asking us to imagine a future 30 or 40 years down the line. I do not know about you, Mr Twigg, but with the current state of politics, particularly in this building, I struggle to look three or four weeks down the line, let alone 30 or 40 years, but I take his point. I am aware of Starship—I have been to a parliamentary reception for it—and I will come on to a sighting of its robots in the wild just last week. The hon. Member mentioned that they are good for reducing traffic and congestion, thereby improving air quality.

Alan Mak brought up the fourth industrial revolution, which is most unlike him, but it was a pertinent point. Jim Shannon—I call him the hon. Member for Westminster Hall East—is no longer in his place, but he was right to mention fears about the impact of automation on jobs, because we sometimes hear about that from the public. He also mentioned the issue of network signals and connections. Last week, as I travelled through much of rural Buckinghamshire, I was unable to check in for a flight for over an hour, owing to the signal in that part of the world.

Andrew Western made an excellent point but also used the opportunity to make a nice political jibe about the local council, which I very much enjoyed. Iain Stewart, who chairs the Transport Committee, of which I am a member, supported many of the points made by his colleague the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North in setting out the advantages of autonomous robots, but he also made a couple of good points linking them to the wider supply chain and the decarbonisation of the whole sector. He used them as a case in point, whereby the public were won over to the advantages of autonomous or smart tech, which is completely the opposite of the experience with smart motorways.

I referred to my trip—our trip, I should say, because the Chair is present—with the Transport Committee to Buckinghamshire to hear more about local issues with High Speed 2. It ended with a visit to Buckinghamshire Railway Centre to hear evidence from the Minister and HS2 Ltd, but the trip took me through Milton Keynes and past a couple of autonomous robots plying their trade on the streets by delivering shopping and drinks to households across a large part of Milton Keynes. It was somewhat of a change of scene to be surrounded, just hours later, by steam locomotives and carriages from railway history—artefacts from the past, when “autonomous delivery” meant letting the horse pull the cart by itself.

I have seen the Starship robots before, and they are impressive in action. They appear to be fairly popular with a lot of the residents of Milton Keynes. I can certainly see the appeal in being greeted with my messages and a song when I collect my purchase, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South said, although having had two young kids when I was elected, I draw the line at yet more “Baby Shark”. If the Minister could take the hon. Gentleman up on the suggestion to supply a new song, that would be fantastic.

The robots serve a purpose in Milton Keynes, but by definition their coverage is limited. They would not fare well delivering to the average three-storey tenement in Glasgow, for example, and it is hard to see how high-rise flats would be covered without a robotic finger for the lift. Starship itself told the Transport Committee fairly recently that the challenge of rolling out its service to more rural areas is big compared with the challenge of rolling it out in a modern, planned new town such as Milton Keynes.

There is also a real question of where exactly the machines themselves would fit into the legislative landscape. The operators of the Starship scheme admitted to the Committee that they were

“operating in a grey area” at the moment. As with bikes and e-scooters, it is unclear whether it is legal for the robots to be on the pavements rather than the road. We are still grappling with the legal framework for electric scooters, and the mood music about a future transport Bill suggests that their regulation, or otherwise, will have to wait until after the general election.

If autonomous deliveries are to become the norm—that may or may not be the case—they will need a clear regulatory and legislative footing that ensures that they are subject to clear restrictions and licensing. The delay to the transport Bill gives the Government the opportunity to get ahead of the curve and to draft appropriately. We are still in the early stages of the technology’s deployment, and getting regulations on the statute book now will allow us to avoid the problems that we have with e-scooters. We are still waiting for e-scooters to be regulated, yet a million of the devices are out on streets and pavements. The continued lack of regulation means that, for example, most train companies will not allow them on board because of fears that the batteries are a fire risk. This is not a case of regulating just for the sake of it.

We also have to be wary of those peddling only good news and good outcomes from this technology. The potential for misuse must be balanced with the potential benefits of autonomous deliveries. It is not hard to foresee the same technology and hardware being used, whether by individuals or by bigger fish—potentially even state actors—to deliver goods that are a lot less legitimate than a carton of milk and half a dozen eggs. It is also not hard to imagine someone illegally accessing the network and operating system on which the vehicles rely and creating havoc.

The robots currently in operation might have a lower speed, but they still present potential obstacles for pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities or visual impairments. Given the limited geographic areas covered by Starship and the like, there may be little conflict now, but if Starship’s service expands and other operators follow in its wake in the same area, there may be fleets of competing robots trundling up and down pavements in towns and cities across the country.

I have painted a fairly negative picture. I view the technology positively, but regulation is required. With the best will, programming and AI in the world, it will become harder to marry up the needs of autonomous deliveries with the needs of pedestrians and pavement users. That is where regulation is required. The example of e-scooters shows the problems inherent in allowing a regulatory grey area to grow to a point where regulation is urgently required.

How we as a society use a product of scientific progress is up to us to determine. Just because a technology is there does not mean that it is a good idea. There is much to commend in the move to autonomous delivery at local level, given the efficiencies and reductions in the resources used to keep households going. Removing the need for shorter car and van deliveries, and therefore reducing road use, will help to reduce congestion, particularly in urban areas, and carbon emissions. There will inevitably be teething problems as services are rolled out—that is the nature of installing and operating something novel and untested in a real-world environment —but that should not clash with the need for regulation that reflects the balancing act required between innovation and the rights of others. Like with most technologies, it is at the times when it fails that autonomous delivery will need to be properly considered.

Although I would have wanted a transport Bill to be in the pipeline—it is not as if there is a lack of content for a transport Bill—the delay in its introduction means that the Government have a chance to do the in-depth work needed to create a regulatory framework that will work for autonomous deliveries, not just in the short term but further down the line. I hope that the Minister will take that message back to his colleagues and ensure that whenever the Bill drops, it can be taken forward with a package of measures that fully deals with autonomous deliveries.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:04, 23 May 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Twigg.

I congratulate Ben Everitt on securing this important debate and I thank the other Members who have made eloquent speeches and interventions. I just want to put it on the record that, although I am from Yorkshire, I spent a lot of my teenage years in Milton Keynes, as my aunt lived just off the Buckingham Road, although in those days the area was called Bletchley. I fully appreciate the comments that the hon. Member made about coming from Sheffield, with its hills, and being in Milton Keynes, which is somewhat flatter. That was a good point, which we should all consider.

The decline in the number of physical shops, an ever-increasing internet-connected population, and the growing use of smartphones have combined to make online shopping quicker and more convenient than ever. That has led to the number of packages being delivered in the UK skyrocketing. Between 2019 and 2020, the last year before covid, approximately 2.8 billion parcels were shipped to households across the UK. But in 2020 and 2021, as physical stores shut and people stayed at home, that number exploded to 4.1 billion. These trends are unlikely to reverse and consumers have come to expect next-day delivery, or even same-day delivery, as standard.

The transport sector already contributes almost a quarter of our total emissions as a country. If we have thousands of new delivery vehicles congesting our streets to cope with the increased demand for e-commerce, I fear that our emissions will only continue to rise. That is why we must be forward-thinking and support new technologies that have the potential to support our decarbonisation efforts.

I have seen some of this innovation at first hand. Earlier this year, I visited the ServCity autonomous mobility research project in Woolwich and travelled along public roads in a self-driving car. Just before Christmas last year, I attended an event in this place where I was able to see a Starship autonomous delivery robot in action. Such autonomous delivery robots could have an important part to play in our obligation to achieve net zero.

The “last mile” of the supply chain is one of the most carbon-intensive parts of a delivery. By utilising smaller, low-emission robots on our streets, we can be a world leader in this new low-carbon industry, helping shops to connect with consumers and supporting the local economy.

Labour stands ready to support the industry and the jobs that it creates. We all know about the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths in schools. What better way is there to engage and inspire students than by making science tangible through robotics? Starship is already putting that into action with schemes all over the country.

Unfortunately, continued chaos in this Government has left a whole fleet of emerging industries in limbo. There have already been three rounds of consultations in this area. Just how many times does that process need to be repeated before the next steps are taken?

I have met countless companies, from global automotive manufacturers to small British mobility start-ups, and they all ask the same question: “When will the legislation keep up with the change of pace that is occurring on our roads?” The legislation that those businesses have been told to operate under dates back to 1835. It beggars belief that state-of-the-art 21st-century technology is operating under legislation passed four decades before the invention of the lightbulb.

Businesses are crying out for clarity and regulatory guidance, but their pleas remain ignored. The Government have left manufacturers of emerging technologies, including autonomous delivery robots, in the dark. That has led to British companies losing investment opportunities as, without a proper regulatory framework, the UK is seen as a risky prospect; my hon. Friend Andrew Western has already discussed that issue in some detail. Businesses are crying out for certainty, so that they can operate in an environment of regulatory security. Will the Minister finally provide that certainty by announcing the timetable for regulation?

Britain has the potential to be a world leader in this exciting sector, but, as we have seen all too often, dither and delay from the Government is stalling progress. Labour stands ready to support our science and technology sector and to create high-quality jobs, all while tackling the climate crisis.

I urge the Minister to do whatever he can to introduce a transport Bill. As the SNP spokesperson, Gavin Newlands, outlined, there are many other things that need regulating, not least e-scooters, where there have been battery issues and fatalities. There is also the debate about smart motorways, which are very unpopular with the public, as Iain Stewart said. At the weekend, a friend of mine witnessed a very unpleasant near miss on the M1, which has put him off driving on that motorway again. I urge the Minister to take a long look at where we are now and how we can better protect our industries, as well as the public.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 5:10, 23 May 2023

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am absolutely delighted to reply to my hon. Friend Ben Everitt; I thank him for securing this debate on the social impact of autonomous last-mile delivery. How right he is to raise it as an important issue and I am grateful to all Members who have spoken in the debate.

Only last week, I spoke to the Transport Committee about self-driving vehicles. The sector is potentially very large, and last-mile autonomous delivery will be just one part of it, and part of what we think of as the connected and automated mobility sector, which, if fully realised, could, it is estimated, have a potential market value of some £42 billion by 2035 and create 38,000 new skilled jobs.

To support the sector, the Government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles has helped to secure £600 million in funding since 2015. In sharp contrast to the dismal description given by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson a few moments ago, this is a thoroughly thriving, technology-driven sector, in which the UK is a European and in many respects a global leader—but we need to continue to make it so. The point raised about legislation is absolutely right. As colleagues will recall from my testimony in front of the Transport Committee, I was as strong on that point there as I am today.

There are tremendous benefits to be had, and not merely economic ones; it is good to focus on the social benefits, which hon. Members have touched on. They potentially include connecting our rural communities, reducing isolation, providing better access to education and making it easier for people to see friends and family. Of course, autonomous last-mile delivery can help to deliver goods and services to people’s doors. All are attractive benefits of the realisation of the potential in the sector. If I may, I will touch on some of the benefits and then on some of the potential drawbacks that the Government are wrestling with.

The first of these benefits is safety. Almost 90% of all recorded road accidents involve human error as a contributory factor. The most recent provisional figures, for the year ending June 2022, show that on average almost five people died on our roads every day. We must bring that number down. Self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce driver error and thereby improve road safety, which has plateaued over the last few years.

Members will be aware that the Government recently consulted on establishing a safety ambition for self-driving vehicles to be equivalent to the driving of a competent and careful driver. In real terms, the effect of that would be that the self-driving vehicle would not drive stressed, aggressively or in a way that reflects fatigue on the part of the driver. It would not seek to take illegal shortcuts. It would not be inebriated at the wheel.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North

Perhaps the Minister would like to come up to Milton Keynes and see for himself how non-stressed our delivery robots are.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. I would be delighted to come up to Milton Keynes to see the fabulous autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles in operation. They represent a very interesting technology, and we are very interested in that. I am pleased to say that my predecessor was able to visit last year, and I will certainly aim to do so.

Let me touch on a couple of other aspects that are useful to reflect on. One is the importance of using vehicles that are appropriately sized and designed for a specific task, thereby reducing the effects of collision from vehicles that are potentially overly large for what is required. These small autonomous vehicles are an example of that. It is right to focus on the safety case, but it is also right to look at the issue of emissions and net zero, where there is significant potential for autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles to make an impact. That could be through being modern vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions by 2030, in line with the Government’s policy. It could come through the use of more efficient and better optimised routes between the starting point and the destination, as well as more efficient automated driving styles. It could come through the right sizing of vehicles, as I have touched on. The development of custom-made vehicles can help increase vehicle utilisation, and that should reduce the impact on carbon emissions overall because it creates greater productivity and use from an existing trip. Finally, we have the positive impact that comes from improving the access people have to receiving goods at their home or business. That, too, is an important further advantage of this technology.

However, we should also focus—the Government are under an obligation to do so—on some of the potential limitations. One has already been touched on, which is that there should be a proper measure of social consent with the introduction of this technology. It should be done in as careful a way as possible, but also in a way that is affordable, equitable, accessible and safe. All those are metrics that could lose public support if they were breached. It is therefore important to adhere to and respect each of those important values. When we think about the safety of vehicles, we know that that will play a key role in acceptability because, as we have discussed, the public likes nothing less than the introduction of, or way of using, a technology that has potentially prejudicial safety effects. Of course, that means not just the vehicles, but any changes to infrastructure that may be required to make them work effectively.

If we look more widely, there are concerns about cyber security with all autonomous vehicles, and small ones are no exception. The Department for Transport works closely with the National Cyber Security Centre to address that. We, as a nation, chair the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and that has developed two new international regulations that focus on cyber security and software updates. Finally, the Department is engaged with the question of cyber skills and works, as part of the national cyber strategy, with other Departments to ensure we have a proper cadre of cyber professionals in and alongside Government, as well as in the private sector. This technology has tremendous implications for cyber security. It is important to mention that it will potentially positively or negatively affect employment. Of course, there can be a threat to existing jobs from any new technology, but it has been projected that as many as 38,000 jobs could come from implementing this technology. That is a mixed blessing.

In terms of remote driving, this is a slightly different technology. It is distinct from self-driving and automation, but it is a technology that potentially sits alongside self-driving technologies. Again, that needs to be conducted with road safety as a key consideration. We therefore need to factor in both sides—the gains and the potential drawbacks—and proceed in a careful, consistent and carefully thought-through way, and that is what the Department is doing. Let me reassure Members that the need for legislation is well understood, but it is also important to ensure that it is a legislative framework set up to accommodate all these concerns as well as to maximise the potential benefit.

I could not end this speech without referring to the brilliant idea from the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend Iain Stewart, that there should be a further national competition, which I hope the Transport Committee will organise, for suitable tunes to be played. I think we can go one step further. I would like to suggest that the Rolling Stones be nominated as the band for the autonomous local transport sector because they brilliantly, in their work, cover both the strengths and the drawbacks of this technology. If successful, the technology is one that could make us happy. It can use these marvellous vehicles as a beast of burden. It allows them to operate at any time and therefore they can be midnight ramblers. Tragically, of course, you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you are waiting on a friend. Indeed, it may be that you can’t hear these little machines knocking. Above all, we want to avoid being turned by them into a street fighting man, let alone suffering a 19th nervous breakdown. With that, let me take my seat. Thank you, Mr Twigg.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 5:21, 23 May 2023

I am very grateful to all the colleagues who have contributed in such good humour to this debate. It is, though, on a very serious subject that could be game changing for our economy. The shadow Minister, Gill Furniss, mentioned, when talking about STEM, making science tangible with robots. I think that that is a very good point. My hon. Friend Iain Stewart mentioned lining up with wider freight and logistics work, which is particularly relevant for us in Milton Keynes.

Gavin Newlands mentioned the juxtaposition, on his recent trip to Quainton, of rural north Bucks versus Milton Keynes. I can assure him that my constituency is both rural and urban. Perhaps the use case for last-mile delivery—or last few miles, if people are in a rural area—is pretty similar. It is all about scale. It underlines the need for regulation in this area, to allow the sector to grow and resolve these problems. The hon. Gentleman also made points about the dark use of this technology by nefarious groups and state actors. Again, that underlines the need for regulation and I am sure that the relevant people will have heard his request for a robot finger in the lifts in Glasgow.

We talked about how important this technology is, and I am grateful to the Minister. He can clearly see that there is a huge opportunity, and it is good to see that the Department is taking a balanced view, but we can take a global leadership role in this respect. I want to emphasise how necessary it is that any future Bill for micromobility and these autonomous robots is considered and addressed to the same degree as self-driving vehicles. It is essentially the same subject. Indeed, the Minister referred to the social contract, and the same is very true for self-driving vehicles.

Innovation is a pedal we cannot take our foot from. The moment we take our foot off the gas is the moment we fall behind. Integrating autonomous last-mile delivery systems into our cities and towns should form part of a tranche of transport solutions with which we can level up transport and connectivity. With this step, we can make a modern city a far more efficient and cost-effective place to live and thrive.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the societal impacts of autonomous last-mile delivery.

Sitting adjourned.