A Bill to prepare for a new technological dawn

Winston Churchill wrote that "the future is unknown, but the past should give us hope": words from which anyone who, like me, believes that where and how we travel all matter can take encouragement. A new technological dawn is breaking, giving sight of the light on the horizon and the dim outline of an unfamiliar landscape. Much of what we have taken as defining transport – the internal combustion engine, driver-piloted vehicles, even traditional models of ownership – will be altered or replaced. The Government's Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, introduced into parliament last month, is designed to help us anticipate and realise the full promise of this new dawn.

Though Churchill was right that the past should give us hope, Proust understood that the past cannot always be relied upon as a guide to the future. He said: "The world was not created once and for all time. There are added to it in the course of our life things of which we have never had any suspicion."

Twenty years ago, few would have credited the suggestion that we were within reach of the first generation of self-driving cars. Yet they are soon to become well known, and with government support are already being tested on the streets of Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol.

Self-driving cars promise the greatest revolution in transport since the car's genesis. When they reach maturity – sooner than we might expect – many young, disabled and infirm people will have new access to personal motorised travel. We might reduce the 86% of collisions that are caused by human error, saving many lives. And we might devise more efficient models of use and ownership
as, rather than sitting idle between journeys, cars may be summoned to a user's home on demand, and at the journey's end travel automatically to pick up another passenger.

Yet with all their promise, self-driving cars also pose challenges. One is the practical question of insurance. Today, the law requires that all drivers hold compulsory insurance, so that in the event that they cause a collision compensation can be paid quickly and easily. Our bill extends this compulsory insurance requirement to cover drivers both when they are in control, and when their self-driving car is in control. The insurer will pay compensation if the self-driving vehicle caused the collision and can then recover costs from the liable party – for example, the manufacturer. Our bill ensures that those affected by collisions – whether caused by a human driver or their automated vehicle – are financially protected.

Self-driving cars are not the only technological leap forward addressed in the bill. I have written before in these pages about the need for a shift to alternative fuels. For progress to be maintained, charging an electric car in the future needs to become as easy as refuelling at a petrol station is now.

And interoperability must be assured – with the design of chargers converging on a common standard. So the bill gives the Government powers to require that fuel retailers add charge points to their forecourts, and that those charge points are accessible by all electric vehicle drivers.

Finally, not all modern technology is used in benign ways. Laser pointers have legitimate uses. But in recent years they have increasingly been used in a profoundly dangerous way: being deliberately shone into the eyes of aircraft pilots.

Apart from damaging victims' eyesight, this dangerous habit puts the lives both of pilots and passengers at risk. The consequences could be catastrophic. And it's not just about aircraft pilots, but drivers, and pilots of maritime vessels too. So the bill makes it a crime to intentionally distract the driver of a vehicle, on land, sea or in the air, with the penalty of an unlimited fine or a five-year prison sentence or both. The bill also gives powers to the police to search on arrest for laser pens suspected of having been used in committing an offence.

For all governments, far-reaching change of the kind we are seeing in transport poses a dilemma. In preparing for a future, the precise characteristics of which are inevitably uncertain, do we commit ourselves now to specific policy approaches? Or instead defer decisions until all has become clear and the future is upon us? The former carries the risk of disrupting the very change for which we are seeking to prepare, the latter the risk of being overwhelmed by change, and in our unreadiness unable to seize the opportunities it brings.

The Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill is a careful but bold attempt to straddle the horns of this dilemma. It clears the ground for the future, nourishes the green shoots of innovation, and makes space to let them flourish.

Reference: Transport Times April 2017 Issue

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