In a compelling debate on the Automated Vehicles Bill, Lord Blencathra raised significant concerns over the future of taxi services in the era of automation, particularly highlighting the challenges faced by disabled individuals in accessing reliable and safe transportation.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Blencathra criticised the practices of popular ride-hailing services such as Uber, condemning their impact on traditional taxi services and the accessibility issues that arise from their operational models.
Lord Blencathra expressed apprehension that the rise of automated vehicles for hire could exacerbate existing issues, especially if these vehicles are not mandated to be wheelchair accessible. He pointed out that while London's iconic black cabs are universally accessible to wheelchair users, the same cannot be said for the majority of private hire vehicles (PHVs) across the country. Citing a report from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—a part of the Department for Transport—the Lord highlighted a worrying trend: the surge in app-based PHV services has led to an overall decline in wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) on the roads, with only 58% of taxis and a mere 2% of PHVs catering to wheelchair users nationwide.
The situation in metropolitan areas such as London mirrors concerns seen internationally, with cities like San Francisco facing similar challenges. Lord Blencathra's observations highlighted the need for legislation that ensures new automated taxis are designed with accessibility in mind, arguing that it is not only feasible but essential to integrate wheelchair access into these future vehicles. He praised the design of London's new black cabs, which have been lauded for their accessibility features, suggesting that such models serve as a blueprint for what automated taxis could and should look like.
Lord Blencathra said: “My concern today is about automated vehicles for hire as cabs. I have never used Uber in my life. I believe it is a disreputable company which does not pay its drivers properly. Its untrained drivers do not have a clue where they are going, and, if I may say so carefully, many seem to be recent arrivals in this country; they cannot find their way to the end of the street without a satnav, and then they stop wherever the satnav tells them to stop or pick up, such as on zebra crossings or in the middle of the road—the dropped kerb that wheelchair users use is one of their favourites. My main concern is that if black cabs in London, or converted Peugeots or Fiat Doblòs in the rest of the country, are wiped out by Uber’s Toyota Priuses, we in wheelchairs will never get a cab again. I do not rate Uber Access as credible if you want to hire a car this decade.
“Has my noble friend the Minister heard of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee? It is part of his department. I have in my hand a piece of paper produced by the department. It says that taxi services must be fully accessible for all disabled persons. It calls for WAVs—wheelchair accessible vehicles—for all, and commends London cabs, 100% of which are wheelchair accessible. It goes on to say that, in the country as a whole, only 58% of taxies are wheelchair accessible vehicles, as are only 2% of private hire vehicles. I shall quote verbatim one paragraph from the department’s wheelchair accessible committee:
“Concerningly, the situation seems to be deteriorating. The launch of Uber and other app-based systems for booking PHVs has resulted in an increase of over 4% in the number of licensed vehicles. But they are nearly all PHVs and, in London, there has been a reduction in the number of licensed taxis which has resulted in an overall fall in the number of WAVs on the road”.
“That is what will happen throughout the country if the Government permit all automated vehicles to become PHVs or taxis without building in a wheelchair accessible requirement.
“Just look at the chaos in California and San Francisco in particular. Have noble Lords seen on the news a single wheelchair accessible cab there among the thousands of lovely dinky cars, such as Ford Focuses and Toyota Priuses? The Prius and the Focus are marvellous little town cars—great runabouts—but I cannot get my dodgy legs in the back of them, even when I am not trying to get a wheelchair into them."
He added: “I hope the Government will insist that any new automated taxis are wheelchair accessible. If they make that clear in law now, vehicle manufacturers will design them—not that there is much to design; it has already been done. The new London black cabs are absolutely fantastic. They have excellent wheelchair ramps, there is lots of space and, for the first time, they seem to have added springs to them. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Borwick on making that happen. So we can just stick the automated computer thingy on to those cabs, or the converted Peugeots I found in other parts of the country. The Peugeot Tepee, they are calling it—what a ghastly name that is. There are Mercedes Vitos, Citroën Berlingos and Fiat Doblòs. All have wheelchair access. So with automated vehicles it is a simple matter of sticking a computer thing on to the vehicles that are there already. I do not want the Government saying, “Oh, this is going to be disproportionate cost and it is a burden on the industry”. It is not.
“We were slowly getting more and more wheelchair-accessible vehicles across the country. The Government must ensure that the new technology of automated vehicles does not set that into reverse, as is likely to happen unless some of these amendments are made—but not Amendment 8."
Lord Berwick added: “The current situation with autonomous vehicles is that there are many manufacturers that are converting existing vehicles. They cannot change their donor vehicles to make them accessible for disabled people, however desirable that might be. Tesla, Waymo, Cruise, Wayve, Oxa and, indeed, Mercedes are all working on autonomous vehicles, but they are not likely or able to change their vehicles to make them accessible because they must be accessible from the original design. Automotive history goes back 120 or even 150 years. We are not able to change existing vehicles, however desirable that is.
“What these clauses would do is stop disabled people being helped by autonomous vehicles coming along. I am thinking particularly of people disabled by a severe learning difficulty who would not be able to learn to drive, or safely drive, a normal vehicle who would not be able to drive as a passenger. I am afraid the clauses would prevent these manufacturers from coming into this market. They would rather go to a market where they could use their existing vehicles than make the changes.”