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Data protection should not stop information from driverless vehicles being used for 'public benefit', says Lords committee

Data generated by connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) should be put to use for "public benefit" where necessary, a UK parliamentary committee has said.16 Mar 2017

The Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords said that there is a lack of clarity over which data generated by CAVs would qualify as personal data and therefore fall subject to data protection laws. However, it said data protection should not be a barrier to the use of CAV data for public benefit if "good data governance" procedures are established.

"It will be important to achieve privacy for individuals and communities, while using data to achieve efficiency and safety of CAV operations," the Committee said. "Data relating to an individual’s CAV in terms of position, speed and performance on the road cannot be regarded as entirely personal – such data is needed for public benefit if a CAV system is to operate as a whole. Good data governance will therefore be needed to secure appropriate protection of personal information while safely using and linking open and non-sensitive data."

"Distinctions will need to be made between commercially sensitive data owned by technology providers and open data," it said.

According to the Committee's new report, the UK's data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), "has undertaken initial work with vehicle manufacturers, and is launching its own call for evidence" on the issue of the use of CAV data and compliance with data protection law. However, it said further clarity is needed on "the meaning of personal data … in the context of CAV".

"We recommend that the government liaise with the ICO, automotive manufacturers and other interested parties, including international partners, to ensure that CAV and the data they produce comply with the relevant privacy and data protection legislation and that this legislation is appropriate and workable, and keeps pace with the technology," the Committee said.

Steps should be taken in the UK to ensure road infrastructure is "future-proofed" so as to support the use of CAVs, the Committee said.

"Highways England and local transport authorities should jointly engage with the industry to examine the potential for ensuring that new infrastructure can be future-proofed and does not need expensive retro-fitting," the Committee said.

"The government must take action with Highways England to improve digital connectivity, removing ‘not-spots’ on British roads – in particular on the strategic road network – in order to realise the benefits of connected vehicles... This can be done through the Digital Economy Bill and the implementation of the universal service obligation [for broadband] to create a ubiquitous digital network. It will also require work at an international level to ensure the development of international standards relating to connected vehicles," it said.

Ben Gardner, expert in CAV at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "A number of projects are underway in the UK to test the operation of CAV in urban environments. The findings of these projects are likely to provide useful evidence of what data is generated, the different use cases which are available, and ultimately how and when such data can be shared. The projects will also help to assess the adequacy of current infrastructure and future requirements in order to provide urban environments across the UK in which CAV can be successfully deployed."

"It is likely that the findings from these projects and tests will help to shape government strategy for attracting manufacturers and service providers to the UK so that the UK can reap the financial and societal benefits that CAV are likely to bring," he said.

The government was also urged to ensure that their support for CAV fits with other transport policies it has established, such as increasing the use of public transport and reducing congestion and pollution.

The Committee also said that it is "not convinced" by statistics that suggest CAV could deliver huge economic benefits. It called on the government to "commission a detailed cost-benefit analysis to provide a realistic indication of the economic benefits CAV could provide in all sectors, differentiating clearly between the different applications of CAV, actual monetary gains from deployment, estimated job creation and social benefits".

Such an analysis would help the government determine the areas in which to focus its support for CAV, it said. There should be a "clear business case" made out for potential applications of CAV before "significant investment" is made, the Committee said. It considered the potential of CAV being used in the context of truck platooning, but said the government should first carry out "an early evaluation of the potential applications of connected and autonomous larger vehicles used for freight and logistics".

The Committee also said that the government had channelled its backing for CAV into how they might be used on UK roads and said it should "broaden its focus" so that use cases in other sectors, such as marine and agriculture, are supported too. 

"There is little hard evidence to substantiate the potential benefits and disadvantages of CAV because most of them are at a prototype or testing stage," the Committee said. "Furthermore, as with any new technology or advancements, there may be unforeseen benefits or disadvantages that have not yet presented themselves. Nonetheless, the UK’s ambition should be to take the lead with CAV in areas where a business case can be made which shows a clear early advantage accruing to the UK."

In its report, the Committee further recommended that the government take steps to improve the environment for testing CAV in the UK, including by setting up at least one "large scale" testing facility which covers "real world urban and rural environments". This would help attract manufacturers and academics involved in CAV to the UK, it said.

"This is consistent with the approach taken in other jurisdictions such as the United States, Germany and Sweden where large testing environments are in the process of being developed in order to attract businesses to test their technology," Gardner said. "Although the UK's code of practice is favourable to those wanting to carry out tests, the UK has not yet championed the facilities which are currently available."