Clause 1 - Basic concepts

Automated Vehicles Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 19 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:25, 19 Mawrth 2024

I beg to move amendment 19, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, leave out “an acceptably safe standard” and insert—

“a high standard of safety”.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 20, in clause 1, page 2, line 7, leave out “an acceptably” and insert “a very”.

This amendment is intended to probe the meaning of “acceptably” with regards to the risk of automated vehicles committing traffic infractions.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers, for our consideration of this Bill, which I think it is fair to say has broad, cross-party parliamentary support. It will be encouraging over the next however many hours we are in Committee to look at the potential to strengthen it.

There is huge potential for the economy in the safe transition to automated vehicles, but it is important that we recognise that this remains a largely undeveloped technology and we are trying to predict what will happen in the future. In our deliberations, it will be important that we try to set the strongest possible framework for what is likely to be needed. The detailed work of the Law Commission gives us a good start, and what we have been presented with from the Lords improves on that work.

Amendments 19 and 20 in my name relate to the critical area of safety: they seek to set in primary legislation the strongest possible safety standards. They would amend the standard of safety from “acceptably safe” to “high”, and amend the definition of “legally” to refer to “very low risk” rather than “acceptably low risk”. That is important because we are trying to anticipate what might happen and to minimise the risks and potential problems.

When similar amendments were debated in the Lords, the Government’s response was that such

“phrases…are open to…interpretation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 January 2024; Vol. 835, c. 63.]

It occurs to me to ask: if things are open to interpretation, who is going to decide? Invariably, that will mean going to the courts. We are trying to minimise the potential for that to happen.

The Government were quite happy to accept the amendment to the phrase “careful and competent driver” —we very much welcome that, which will reduce the number of things that are open to interpretation—so I wonder why they were not prepared in the Lords to accept amendments similar to these. Perhaps the Minister will answer that question in his response.

“Careful and competent” itself was only established in case law; it is not in statute. That is being left to the courts as well, and is open to further interpretation. We will return to that point with later amendments, because we are trying to minimise the risks of leaving things open to interpretation. This is a good example of where an advisory council, which was the subject of much debate in the Lords, could make recommendations to address the uncertainties that exist in legislating for the unknown, in the way that we are invariably having to do with primary legislation for technology that is yet to be developed.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on these points. The amendments attempt to reduce the risks of leaving things open to interpretation. We want the highest possible standards set out as early as possible to enable this technology to be developed as safely as possible.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

It is pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I thought it would be helpful for the Committee to start with some good news. The SNP and Scottish Government are generally supportive of the Bill and I will not seek to detain the Committee over the course of however many days we debate it with superfluous speeches, reading out explanatory notes and so on, until we get to clause 50, which I will get my teeth into—I am sure the Minister will be aware of that. However, I reserve the right to intervene in support of any of Labour’s amendments, which I am doing now, or indeed when I think the Minister is talking cobblers, which hopefully he will not be doing.

That is the good news. With that, I very much look forward to the Minister’s answer about what actually is acceptably safe.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

I rise to ask a short question to the Minister and to support my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central.

I have the pleasure and privilege of serving on the Transport Committee, along with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North. To reinforce the point that my hon. Friend made, there is broad, cross-party support for the concept, but the widely held assumption that self-driving vehicles will prove safer than human drivers is not a given.

Having looked at the whole issue in some detail, the Select Committee produced an excellent report, which I recommend to members of this Committee. It was published on 15 September last year, and one of its conclusions is:

“Optimistic predictions are often based on widespread self-driving vehicle usage that is decades away, or assertions about human error that ignore other risks”— for example, changing weather conditions. It continued:

“Safety must remain the Government’s overriding priority as self-driving vehicles encounter real-world complexity. Given this, we question the Government’s proposed ambition that self-driving vehicles must be as safe as a competent and careful human driver.”

The Committee felt that that was

“too weak and too vague” and called on the Government to

“set a clearer, more stretching threshold.”

I will come back to this in my contribution on clause stand part, but I just wanted to put that to the Minister and to reinforce the points made by the Opposition Front Benchers.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sefton Central, for his comments at the beginning. I agree that there has been a large amount of cross-party support for the Bill, as was shown on Second Reading, and I appreciate the work done in the House of Lords to strengthen it. When we come to the clauses on which there is agreement, I will try to move as rapidly as possible so that we can spend more time on the clauses to which amendments are proposed.

The shadow Minister set out that the Bill is quite unusual because we are legislating for an industry that does not exist. Things are moving rapidly, but fully self-driving cars may be decades away, as the hon. Member for Easington said. However, we need to prepare for that now and try to think of all the different future scenarios.

Before coming to the amendments, I want to put something on the record about clause 1, because it is fundamental in setting out the concepts underpinning the Bill. It defines what it means for a vehicle to travel autonomously—in other words, without human-controlled monitoring with a view to safety-critical interventions. It establishes that that can be achieved through a vehicle having one or more self-driving features, and that those features can be specific to locations and circumstances. For example, it may have a motorway chauffeur feature that can drive the vehicle only on dual carriageways, or an urban delivery feature that operates in a specific geographic area.

More significantly, the clause introduces the self-driving test—the principle that there is a threshold of safe and legal operation above which the vehicle can be considered legally self-driving. That will be set out in more detail in the statement of safety principles introduced by clause 2, which we will come to shortly. We all share the ambition that automated vehicles should be as safe as possible; that is why in the Lords we inserted the statement that they should be as safe as a “careful and competent” human driver.

Before I deal with the amendments, I want to refer to the points that the hon. Member for Easington made. As I am sure he knows, I have read the Select Committee’s report, which is very good and insightful. Eighty-eight per cent of collisions—we are not meant to say “accidents” —involve some form of human error, whether people are speeding, not paying attention, distracted by the kids in the back, looking at their phone, angry or drunk. Self-driving vehicles do not do that. A careful and competent driver will have a far lower rate of accidents than an average human driver.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

I am familiar with the statistics, and the Minister is absolutely correct, but I think we have to stretch our minds and think of scenarios that a competent human driver can reasonably anticipate. An example would be anticipating the movements of a blind or partially sighted person. We know that a blind person, because it is part of their training, tends to stick to the kerbs and corners. I am not convinced as yet that autonomous vehicles have the algorithms or knowledge to differentiate, so we have to set the bar—the standard—as high as possible.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Member for that comment. I think he is right to say that autonomous vehicles at the moment probably cannot distinguish between blind or partially sighted pedestrians and ones who are not, but what we are setting out in the Bill is the statement of safety principles in the abstract, with the ambition that automated vehicles are as safe as a careful and competent driver. What that means will be set out as a result of detailed consultation with—as we now set out in the Bill—road users, road safety groups and the industry. Concerns about whether a self-driving vehicle can interpret whether a pedestrian is blind or not would come in at that level of detail, rather than in the ambition that we have here.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

Does the Minister agree that the Bill is not trying to solve all the challenges or deal with all the problems that we know come with autonomous vehicles or artificial intelligence, but is trying to create a framework within which those problems can be tackled effectively and safely?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is spot on; that is the entire point. We are creating a framework with a lot of flexibility in it because, as various Members have noted, this is moving technology. If we look back in 20 years’ time to where we are now, we will say, “Oh, that was very basic.” Things will change: technology will change; our understanding of the technology will change; and our understanding of how humans interact with the technology will change. That is why it is really important, as my hon. Friend said, that we keep the legislation flexible so that we can advance it.

Photo of Simon Lightwood Simon Lightwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

I wonder whether the Minister has considered whether it would be better to start with a stricter level of safety and then, as we get used to the technology and understand its limitations, perhaps look to reduce it to the levels that are proposed.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. The Law Commission, whose work feeds into all this, recommended three standards of safety, and we have chosen the highest. There is a risk that, if we set the bar far too high, it will be impossible for the industry to develop in the first place. There is a balance that needs to be struck.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being generous with his time. Does he agree that it is easy to ban stuff, and that an over-regulatory approach is anathema to the development of the kinds of solutions that we are hoping will address these issues in due course?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is very easy for Governments to ban things, but we need to nurture the industry so that it grows, because there are huge opportunities to reduce road fatalities and injuries overall, and to improve road safety overall, if we get this right. Indeed, that is the overriding reason why we are interested in this area: it is not about making it more convenient for different groups of people, or whatever; it is about improving road safety. There are arguments about accessibility and about economic growth, but it is road safety that is really important. If we get it wrong by banning the technology or making it too difficult, we will miss opportunities to improve road safety.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Ceidwadwyr, North West Cambridgeshire

Does the Minister also agree that, if we were to ban the technology, with the direction that it is going globally, other countries would lead the way? We would miss out on the opportunity to have more jobs, more innovation and more finance coming to this country because we would have allowed other countries to progress with the technology while we were stifling it.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Absolutely. Clearly, this is an industry that is developing globally, and we want to be part of that. I think that we all recognise that there are huge economic opportunities here, as well as opportunities for improving road safety. There is a risk that, if we set the standard far too high right at the beginning, the industry will not be able to develop and we will lose out to countries that are more flexible in their approach.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will, although I am conscious that I need to make headway at some point.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

I am grateful. That is quite an important point about regulation and not banning things, but can we just be cognisant of what has happened recently where we have taken a more laissez-faire attitude, such as in relation to pedicabs or the electric cycles that are littering the pavements?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

Nobody wants to ban them completely, but if we had taken a harder line at the outset on the framework in which they operate, many of those problems could have been avoided. That is all that we on the Opposition Benches are saying.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Member for his comments, and I appreciate the support that there is in the Committee for the regulation of pedicabs. The problem with pedicabs was that there was no regulation; it was a free-for-all, basically. That is indeed why we are legislating here to create a regulatory framework. It is really quite detailed legislation that builds on at least three years’ work by the Law Commission of England and Wales and by the Scottish Law Commission. I absolutely agree that we need regulation, but it is a question of getting the balance exactly right.

Turning to amendments 19 and 20, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Sefton Central, I certainly support the ambition that we want to make safety high. However, I think that there is a risk that his proposals misinterpret why we are using the term, “acceptably safe standard”. Again, this was discussed at length by the Law Commission, and we are just following its recommendations. One might think that the word, “acceptable”, in the English language means that it is not as good. In fact, the wording means that the level of safety is acceptable both for the Government and for the public. We can define what the acceptable level is: that will be set out in the statement of safety principles. Our ambition is the level of a competent and careful driver. As time goes on and the technology progresses, what is acceptable to the Government and the public may become higher and higher—and we will be able to set that higher and higher by revising the statement of safety principles. Having the same safety principle define what is, and is not, acceptable gives us a clear definition of what exactly we want, which is not open to varied interpretation.

The phrase “high standard of safety” and the “very low” risk of committing an infraction are problematic. How do we define “very low”? How do we define “high standard”? As the shadow Minister said, that would be open to court interpretation. The proposed wording does not give the precision that the Bill already offers in saying that safety should be acceptable, given that what is acceptable is set out in the statement of safety principles. We already have a backstop for safety in terms of ambition and the “careful and competent” standard required by the safety principles. The amendments leave far too much leeway and interpretation for the court. By being precise about what is and is not acceptable in the statement of safety principles we will be able to ensure that they are the right safety standards.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:45, 19 Mawrth 2024

We have had an unexpectedly wide debate on the first group of amendments. I welcome the contributions by hon. Members. I am sure that all our debates will be similarly robust.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington for explaining what we are trying to do. Red herrings were being put forward: no one is trying to ban automated vehicles by saying that we should have the highest possible safety standards. I hope that Government Members might reconsider the way in which they framed their interventions.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I hope that the hon. Member for Aberconwy will agree with me that we want the highest possible safety standards.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

I am happy to clarify my remarks. The reference to banning stuff is actually a euphemism for an over-regulatory approach.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am going to look up the word “ban” a bit later and see whether “euphemism” appears next to it. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clearing that up. As I said in my opening remarks, the Government rightly accepted the phrase “careful and competent” in the Bill in the Lords. It is about putting a clear statement of intent in the regulations on the importance of safety in a so-far undeveloped technology. The comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington on the current concerns about where technology has reached were well made. What we want to do is remove the fear, risk and elements of concern.

On the point made by the right hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire, absolutely, we want to make the most of this technology for economic purposes. The figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders demonstrate that there will be something like 300,000 jobs between now and 2040, and £66 billion added to GDP. We very much want to make the most of those opportunities.

I suggest that having strong safety principles and the safest industry in the world is one of the ways in which we achieve exactly that goal. Having credibility, and the reputation for developing technology that is usable anywhere and is very safe, will be part of delivering the economic benefits. The expression, “careful and competent”, is not defined in statute; it is subject only to case law. The phrases “very low risk” and “a high standard of safety” are not defined. I completely accept those points. What is important is that we set out the intention in this legislation for the courts, which may well have to adjudicate at some point. That is why these amendments were important. I have listened to what the Minister said, and at this stage I do not feel that there is merit in pushing the amendments to a vote. However, I hope that he and other Members will take on board the fact that we are trying to set out our intention with as strong an opposition as possible in this framework legislation—yes, for secondary legislation, whenever that comes, but also for the courts, if they have to adjudicate. I will happily not press the two amendments in this group.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

Forgive me, Mr Vickers—are we having the clause stand part debate now? May I contribute to that?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I had the great pleasure of your company on the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Committee.

There are a couple of key issues in the Bill, and safety is one of them. Of course, the other major element is insurance liability. I think it is reasonable to discuss that and consider the implications. I do not want to regurgitate the explanatory notes, but clause 1 would establish a self-driving test and make provision for the Government to classify a vehicle with features that meet the test as an autonomous vehicle. The clause states that a vehicle would satisfy the self-driving test if it has at least one feature that would

“allow it to travel autonomously”.

The Minister described some of those features: motorway driving and parking features, and others.

Importantly, to travel autonomously, a vehicle would be required to do so “safely”—

“to an acceptably safe standard”— and “legally”—

“with an acceptably low risk of committing a traffic infraction.”

The Minister referred to the Law Commissions for England and for Scotland, explained how the definition was arrived at, and cited the 75 recommendations and so on. However, the Opposition and many organisations believe that we must hold autonomous vehicles to the highest level of safety standards because it is important to gain the confidence of the public so that they can feel comfortable interacting with them.

I thank the Transport Committee Clerks and organisers who arranged for a number of Committee members to have a ride in an autonomous vehicle with Wayve yesterday. I have been fortunate to do that on a couple of occasions with the Transport Committee, and there are obvious signs of improvement. However, it is a confidence issue—for safety reasons, there was a driver there who could intervene, and we only did a little circuit from Whitehall over Westminster bridge past St Thomas’s and Lambeth Palace, and back past Parliament Square. Even though there was no intervention from the safety driver, there is the issue of how someone would feel if there was no driver present. It is psychological— one must have the confidence to do that.

I was in an autonomous bus quite recently with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North. It is a confidence issue. One cannot underestimate the public’s willingness to engage with this technology if that confidence is not there. Part of the argument we are making with amendments 19 and 20 is to try to ensure that we have the highest possible level of public confidence and trust.

As I mentioned earlier, the Transport Committee’s findings were published in its report on self-driving vehicles on 15 September. The Committee expressed concern about the assumption that self-driving vehicles will automatically be safer than human drivers. We said that that is not a given. Rigorous safety measures must be an overriding priority for self-driving vehicles as they are faced with the complexities and unpredictable nature of real-world driving.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the definitions of “safety” and “legally” in clause 1(7)(a) and (b), which I have just mentioned. They define “safety” as only

“to an acceptably safe standard”,

while “legally” means

“with an acceptably low risk of committing a traffic infraction.”

The Opposition and many organisations do not believe that those provide adequate protections for drivers, passengers and pedestrians, and they are unlikely to achieve the improvement in road safety that the introduction of AV technology could deliver. I support amendments 19 and 20, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central and Labour spokespeople, which propose to

“leave out ‘an acceptably safe standard’ and insert ‘a high standard of safety’”,

as well as

“leave out ‘an acceptably’ and insert ‘a very’”,

when referring to the low level of a traffic infraction. I would like to add that that is a position supported by Cycling UK, as stated in the written evidence submitted to the Committee.

While we accept that self-driving vehicles could potentially reduce casualties—we learned yesterday and in previous examples that the traffic management systems do not allow those vehicles to speed, so there would be less speeding than with human drivers—there are others factors to consider. During the Transport Committee inquiry which led to the “Self-driving vehicles” report, Becky Guy from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents told us that, while many collisions involve human error, there were often other contributory factors. That was a view shared by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which said that accidents attributable to humans are often caused by poor road and vehicle design and difficult driving conditions, such as rapidly changing weather conditions. Therefore, we cannot rely on the omittance of human error to improve the safety of our roads. We must hold AVs to a high standard of safety with a very low risk of committing a traffic infraction by supporting amendments 19 and 20. Without those amendments, there is a risk that the safety standards for AVs will not be strong enough.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As I set out in my response to the hon. Member for Sefton Central, when he was making the case for the amendments, there is not a sufficient appreciation of the word, “acceptable”. I know that in English it can sound a bit vague, but it means what is acceptable for the public and Parliament as expressed through the statement of safety principles. I completely agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Easington that we need to bring the public with us and it is about confidence—absolutely.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Ceidwadwyr, Copeland

Would it be helpful to set out how we have already embraced elements of self-driving in transport? For example, I doubt there will be a driver in this place who does not rely on anti-lock braking systems when using their car. Self-parking is now quite common and autopilot is used when we are flying across the skies. Driverless trains are in operation, as are Starship robots. There are already elements of self-driving provisions on our roads that we have come to accept. I think it would be helpful if the Minister could perhaps set out how the sensory equipment in those vehicles—the lidar, the radar and the sonar—is so much more powerful than the human eye and other aspects of human sensory facilities. In addition, perhaps he could set out that human error is often the cause of accidents in this country.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I agree that technologies are evolving all over the place in lots of different modes of transport, and we are at the beginning of a revolution. I think that self-driving cars are probably a different order of magnitude.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

That is driver assistance.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Yes, as the hon. Member for Easington said, that is slightly different, but the technologies are related. Self-driving cars are of a different order of consideration because there is literally no human there and the cars may travel at speed, so we absolutely have to ensure that they are as safe as possible.

It is in the statement of safety principles that we need to set out in detail what is and is not acceptable. I completely agree that we need to bring the public with us, which is why the Secretary of State and I have met a wide range of road user and road safety groups, including Cycling UK, which the hon. Member for Easington mentioned. We committed to continue consulting it, and indeed under the Bill we will engage with road user groups, road safety groups and the industry to ensure that everyone is happy with the safety standards. That will be set out in detail in the statement of safety principles.

The acceptable standard will be clear in law when it is set out in the statement of safety principles. A lot of this debate, and the debate on Second Reading, is really about what should be in the statement of safety principles, which will come after this Bill is enacted.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.