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Head of CSIC, Professor Lord Mair, calls for action to close engineering and digital skills gap during House of Lords debate

last modified Jan 02, 2018 10:12 AM
The House of Lords took note of the report from the Science and Technology Committee, titled Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: The future? published in March 2017 and debated on 20 December.

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During the debate, Professor Lord Robert Mair, Head of CSIC, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), chairman of the Department for Transport’s Science Advisory Council and a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee that produced the debated report, reflected on the government’s wish to “see fully self-driving cars, without a human operator, on UK roads by 2021”, as stated in the Industrial Strategy White Paper (November 2017), as “bold ambition”.

Referring to the range of issues to be resolved before anticipating the widespread use of driverless cars on the roads, including congestion, data sharing, skills and research, Lord Mair confirmed the expectation for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) to improve traffic conditions and reduce congestion is not certain. He acknowledged the government’s response to the report, which recommends further research.

Considering potential benefits of CAVs, Lord Mair said: “In the future, driverless cars could well bring a wide uptake of personal mobility as a service – one of the great potential benefits. In which case, car ownership could very substantially reduce, and city streets would no longer have nearly as many privately owned cars. This could be highly beneficial for our city road networks; a widespread absence of parked cars would certainly reduce congestion.”

The report recommends that data gathered from CAVs must be used in accordance with data protection law but warns that the meaning of personal data is unclear in this context. Expanding on this complexity, and citing the National Infrastructure Commission’s report Data for the Public Good, which brings focus to this point, Lord Mair said: “Good data governance will therefore be required to secure appropriate protection of personal information while safely using and linking open and non-sensitive data. Sharing data for the public good means that some datasets are public, while others will be available only to certain parties. Distinctions will need to be made between commercially sensitive data owned by technology providers and open data: “Public confidence in regulation and governance of data will be key to the successful exploitation of CAV technologies.”

Taking further steps to close the engineering and digital skills gap in order to ensure the UK benefits from the emerging CAV technologies is, said Lord Mair, critical to success. He referred to the Transport Systems Catapult report Intelligent Mobility Skills Strategy: Growing New Markets in Smarter Transport, which concludes that the UK faces a potential skills gap of 742,000 people by 2025. Recognising the government’s accord with the need for investment across the education and training pipeline, Lord Mair enquired: “Is enough being done to ensure that the potentially very large engineering and digital skills gap will be closed in the coming years?”

In closing his contribution to the debate, Lord Mair welcomed the recent government announcement of the launch of MERIDIAN – a new co-ordination hub for CAV technologies testing – and support of scientific research in AI, robotics and related information technology at academic institutions. Highlighting the need for research on human interactions with CAVs, the social and behavioural questions relating to the new technology, and on understanding the attitudes of the public to CAVs, he concluded: “With driverless and traditional cars together on the roads, will the public be prepared to trust and accept autonomous technologies? Without a high degree of public acceptance, the huge potential for driverless cars on our roads will not materialise.”

Read the full Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (Science and Technology Report) debate here.

Read the full report Science and Technology Select Committee 2nd Report of Session 2016–17 Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: The future? here.

Read the full white paper Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future (27 November 2017) here.