23 May 2023
Autonomous Last-mile Delivery

Jesse Norman, Minister of State (Decarbonisation and Technology) at the Department for Transport, responds to a debate on the societal impacts of autonomous last-mile delivery.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am absolutely delighted to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (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.

Ben Everitt 

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

Jesse Norman 

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 the Member for Milton Keynes South (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.