Skip to main content

Autonomous Road Vehicles

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will commission a feasibility study to consider converting the entire Southern Rail network to a roadway for autonomous vehicles.

My Lords, we have no current plans to commission such a study. However, we are investing more than £100 million in research and development into connected and autonomous vehicles, and a further £100 million into testing infrastructure. We have commenced a programme of regulatory reforms that will keep pace with changes in technology as it comes to market. We continue to invest in our national rail infrastructure through transformative projects such as Thameslink and Crossrail to meet ever-increasing passenger demand.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for the access he gave me to Department for Transport officials and contractors, and congratulate him on the progress being made by his autonomous vehicle projects. Does he agree that the successful pilot currently under way at Heathrow demonstrates the potential of autonomous vehicles to serve on a branch line such as Lewes to Seaford, and that if we demonstrate success on that line, the technology would suit the peripheral parts of the Southern network very well? If we succeed at that, we will be in a great position in an industry with worldwide applications, which is just what we are trying to with the industrial strategy.

My Lords, of course we welcome the cutting-edge nature of transport innovation in the rail sector. In particular my noble friend talked about the new systems and operations at Heathrow and the pods being used there. There are also other parts of the rail network such as the DLR and the new rolling stock from Siemens that will be coming on line on Thameslink. There will be a use of technology and autonomous vehicles in what I believe will be controlled environments. He mentioned further innovations on the wider network. We need to see how technology can be adapted on existing systems while recognising that the interface with the people who work in the rail sector is equally important, and look at how their skills can be adapted in line with the technologies we are now seeing across the system.

My Lords, is there any function of a train driver that cannot theoretically be safely automated?

My Lords, as I have already said, the DfT is not looking at any particular study. Train drivers across the network, across the country and beyond play a very important role. We are seeing the outlay and the new driver-only operated trains coming on board. As I have already said, we need to embrace technology and look at how the employee interface works with it. We are seeing some very good examples across the country.

My Lords, does the Minister not think that a very good example can be found from 54 years ago in Admiralty Fleet Order 150/63 —action to be taken in the instance of being bitten by a snake? When one looks at the Southern region, the first bit of advice is “Kill the snake”.

I regret to say that I am not familiar with the order that the noble Lord has mentioned, nor with its related nature. As I often say to him, in the interests of education, I will look up that order when I return to the department.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in trying to achieve autonomous vehicles, we should not only look at roads; they have uses not only on rail lines but in agricultural and marine environments, where there will be huge opportunities for connected and autonomous vehicles, although possibly short of full autonomy?

My noble friend is quite right to suggest that. He mentioned roads and I agree. As a Government, we are already trialling connected and autonomous vehicles. To digress for a moment, it is quite a strange sensation when you sit in an autonomous car for the first time, knowing that you are no longer directly in control. My noble friend talks about other uses. In my own area of transport—aviation—the autopilot has been used extensively. There is a need to see how we can embrace technology in an innovative way across all transport modes, while recognising that in certain circumstances controlled interaction is also important.

My Lords, yesterday Transport Focus announced its latest survey results, which showed the satisfaction level with the way in which Southern trains deals with delays to be down to 12%. It also referred to the timetable for London and the south-east of England as, in many cases, a work of fiction. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the imagination that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has applied to this Question. However, if autonomous vehicles develop as promised—and as the Government wish them to, as indicated by the Minister—they will be on our roads by 2025. What are the Government doing to prepare our legal structures and road system for this revolution?

The noble Baroness referred to Southern rail. I am sure that across the House we welcome the fact that one of the two unions is now sitting down to talk. That will be welcomed not just by those who use the network and who have particularly suffered over a long period but by us all. We hope that the result of those discussions will be positive. She talked about the importance of innovation and autonomous vehicles coming on line. Of course, she is right to raise insurance and other areas related to the use of such technology. The DfT is investing a great deal of time in research and development and in talking to the industry in exactly the way that she has suggested.

Before Southern rail tracks are tarmacked over, perhaps I may again take the opportunity to ask the Government the question that I asked the other week but to which I received absolutely no answer—namely, what financial penalties has Southern rail or its holding company, Govia, had to pay for poor performance unrelated to industrial action over the last 18 months under the terms of the franchise agreement providing for them to operate the rail service?

As the noble Lord is aware—we have already had an exchange on this—first, we hold the company to account. My honourable friend the Rail Minister meets the company once a week. Secondly, we have levied penalties in accordance with the current contract. Thirdly, as he is fully aware, the operator has invoked force majeure clauses. We need to look at each case before we decide on further action, and that work is nearly complete. However, to put it into context, as some noble Lords may know, there were 10,000 different cases and claims of force majeure between April and June, and that underlines the challenge that we face.

Does the Minister agree that anyone who suggests that we close railway lines should be referred back to the vandalism of the Beeching era, when thousands of miles of track were closed, viaducts were smashed up and tunnels were filled in? Now many communities up and down the country are trying to reopen lines that were closed. Perhaps that is a lesson that everyone should take on board.

The noble Lord is right. Indeed there are lines that were disused in the past that we are currently looking at to see how they can be brought back into service. I do not think any noble Lord, including my noble friend, has at any time suggested closing or tarmacking over railway lines. Instead we are trying to see how we can use innovation and technology in adapting for our railways of the future.