Q & A: Lord Selborne: Driverless cars could be a nightmare


Following the publication of a major report on connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV), Lord Selborne, chairman of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, talks to Transport Network about the difficulties of applying the technology to the real world.

Q: I get the impression from the report that your committee feels, on a number of fronts, that the Government is in danger of playing the wrong role on CAV. Is that a fair reflection?

The Government have an important role to play but it’s critical to define exactly what it is and to make sure that it doesn’t get involved in things which other people will do better. It must do the things that no-one else can do.

Probably the most important thing on that is to provide an international test facility, because after all the purpose of engaging in this technology is to try to attract the inward investment – build on our science expertise in robotics and information technology.

And if we did have a state of the art test facility, which was a suitable test for both urban rural and mixed fleets that would give us a head start but of course that’s not something which is going to happen without Government help.

Q: Would it be right to say that the issues that concern you are the real world applications of CAV, for example on the transport network - and of course you have talked about other roles for CAV?

Yes, we’ve already got a number of existing applications for CAV. The media tend to concentrate on so-called driverless cars but if you look at what we are already doing in the case of say metro and rail, air of course, space, military and dealing with dangerous situations, all these are going apace.


I’m sure agriculture will have a lot of precision agriculture, there won’t be anyone working in dangerous environments; all this is examples of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles and of course each can learn from each other, so that’s why we again call for a robotics and autonomous systems leadership council. And that would mean that you wouldn’t have things falling between silos.

Most of the evidence we got was on driverless vehicles, or moving towards driverless vehicles and yet probably the early wins are going to be in other areas. And so I think it’s important that we recognise that.

And indeed, as we say in the report, there are some quite difficult issues which have to be addressed as to how you move from say level one and two through to levels four and five. Level three [where drivers do not need to monitor the driving conditions or environment at all times, but must always be in a position to resume control] is a bit of a nightmare.

Q: You think it should be missed out altogether?

Well that’s possible, yes. I think people are going to be quite concerned when they see a so-called driverless car coming towards them and they may react in ways they wouldn’t in other situations.

Q: And of course it’s the higher levels that would have the most benefits for, for example, people with disabilities, learning disabilities, or dementia?

Once you get to the higher level, level five particularly, there will be a lot of benefits. I think safety but also yes increased mobility, accessibility. But again there needs to be a strong business case made and it needs to be integrated with other transport systems and policies because you do need to think about the implications for encouraging bicycles, or indeed footpaths, and other public transport systems.

But yes, you’re right, I think that providing the cost can be supported, and the cost will be not inconsiderable, you can see that people living in rural areas might be give a new lease of life with the ability to summon their own transport.

Q: Referencing something that transport minister John Hayes told your committee, how strong a risk is there that the development of CAV will ‘hurtle in the other direction’, versus other government transport policies?

That is a risk unless the local authorities and others are carefully integrated into the planning of it. I can see for example that unless local authorities are given a lot of guidance as to how the technology is likely to develop or is developing, we might find we have put in transport management systems for example, which are redundant within a short time.

We had evidence for example from York City Council, which was one of the smaller transport systems, Mr Capes - he was very good. He had quite some caution there but he felt that most local authorities – and he’s talking about the smaller ones, not Greater Manchester, West Midlands or London – they would need a lot of help to understand just how this is going to impact on their systems and infrastructure.

It’s going to be very difficult to retro-fit. So if you’ve got new systems going in, or for that matter roads or lining even, all this needs to be understood as soon as the technology has determined just what is required.

I think the early winners on road transport would be platooning of vehicles along major arterial roads. But of course that has implications for the wear and tear on that particular bit of road. But there might well be some benefits there. But you would still have to have a driver in the vehicle and it will have to be turned over to manual at the end of the platooning system.

But you might have a dedicated lane, which would increase enormously the capacity of the motorway or the main arterial road, so I think that would be one of the early wins through platooning. It might well save petrol costs and various other things. And it will certainly have safety benefits, I think.

Q: How real a risk is there that there will be this gridlock of, as you say, CAV just crawling through the city centres?

Many people think that this is going to reduce congestion. That wasn’t entirely clear to us why that should be.

It might be, but you’re going to have to policies in place to discourage people, for example, from getting delivered to their office and then leaving their autonomous vehicle cruising around till they need it again, which would be disastrous.

But that in a sense is traffic management policy, which has to be appropriate.

It could be sent home, back to the garage, or it could be parked out of the city centre. But what you don’t want is it just driving around.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight? 

Just going through the role of Government and what we've talked about, one of the reaons why it's important, this developing technology, is we are a world leader in robotics and information technology so it's quite possible to see us being a world leader. Government simply mustn't try and do what the manufacturers could well do themselves, the new entrants. So they will develop their own automated vehicles, or semi- automated. What the Government must do is provide the infrastructure to go with it. 

I think a world class testing facility would be an excellent investment because it would probably bring in these players where they would certainly welcome being alongside some of our universities so they could work with them with the modelling, and others. 

The social sciences have a very important role to play with human behaviour, as to what extent some of us will accept it. The insurance issues are rather more technical and that is actually in hand with the present legislation. 

And then there's the trolley question [in which a fatal collision is imminent and a CAV must, based on its prior programming, ‘choose’ who to save]... 

I think it's just the quality of the computer programme. I think all one can say is it's going to be safer - probably - than the present human error, eventually. But it's when you've got mixed fleets that there could be a bit of a nightmare.

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