Legislation that will set up a safety framework to allow the introduction of self-driving vehicles across the UK must not be allowed to create new access barriers, two disabled peers have warned the government.
They told the House of Lords this week that changes to the automated vehicles bill would have to be made to ensure that all self-driving vehicles were accessible to disabled people.
Conservative peer Lord [Chris] Holmes (pictured) told the Lords on Monday, during the bill’s committee stage: “Automated vehicles are either accessible, or they should not be pursued.
“They have such potential to enable mobility through technology, transforming people’s lives, be they older people, disabled people or any member of our society.
“If accessibility is not the golden thread that runs through all their development and deployment, this project should not proceed any further.”
He proposed an amendment that would ensure the transport secretary had to prepare a “statement of accessibility principles” – with disabled people involved – that would be applied when assessing if an automated vehicle met the necessary level of accessibility.
He said that the vehicle itself as well as the booking platform and physical infrastructure such as kerbs and drop-off points would all need to be accessible.
He added: “We have spent many decades putting right inaccessible buildings, infrastructure and public realm that was built and conceived of long before accessibility, inclusion and inclusive by design were even considered, let alone deployed.
“That is still a work in progress, but we need to be absolutely certain that we are not potentially building new systems, vehicles and infrastructure that are inaccessible by design.”
His fellow disabled peer, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, former president of the Liberal Democrats, who supported his amendment and is also pushing for changes to the bill, said: “This is not something that affects a few people; it is a major, really important part of automated vehicles, increasingly so as we become an elderly society, because it is less likely that people will be able to make their own journeys.
“One reason why so many disabled people cannot travel around is because they do not have access to the right vehicles.”
She proposed an amendment that would set up a statutory advisory panel – with disabled members – to design national minimum standards on the accessibility of self-driving passenger service vehicles.
She told fellow peers: “If we do not tackle this right at the start, it will prevent disabled people using these vehicles, because they will not be involved in the process.”
They were supported by the Green peer Baroness Bennett, who said it was likely that automated vehicles would initially be used as public transport, rather than by private individuals.
She pointed to hearings held by the Commons transport committee, which had “exposed insufficient accessibility right across the transport sector”.
She said the UK was “starting from scratch” with self-driving vehicles and “could get it right from the beginning, so we should absolutely aim to do so”.
Lord Tunnicliffe, a Labour shadow transport minister, said he was “very sympathetic to the whole problem of access” and supported the “general direction” of the amendments proposed by Lord Holmes and Baroness Brinton.
But Lord Davies, a junior transport minister, said the measures in the bill “already provide scope to consider accessibility at every stage” and will mean that anyone seeking authorisation to run a service would have to explain how it would consider accessibility and how they would avoid their vehicles “unfairly discriminating against particular groups”.
He said equality and fairness were “likely to be included” as part of a statement of safety principles, so ordering “a second set of accessibility principles may create overlap”.
And he said that those organisations applying for permission to run self-driving public services “will not only be required to show how they are designing services to meet the needs of older and disabled people but obliged to publish reports on how those needs are being met in practice”.
He said public bodies would also have duties under the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty.
And he said the government was already planning to set up an accessibility advisory panel to “advise on the granting of permits and assist in the development of national minimum accessibility standards”, while it would continue to receive independent advice from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee.
He agreed to discuss the issues with Lord Holmes and Baroness Brinton before the report stage of the bill in early February.
But Lord Holmes told him: “The reality is that the current measures on accessibility in the bill are not specific and are insufficient.
“The bill needs to be beefed up on accessibility, otherwise it will be a game of catch-up and missed opportunities.
“The minister said in winding up that there is ‘scope’ for that, but scope is not actuality.
“He said that there is potential and opportunity, but opportunity is not inevitability.”
He added: “The opportunity that accessible automated vehicles provide cannot be left to go the way of other transport developments over the previous 200 years.”
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