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Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan COURTESY PHOTO

Q&A: Senator Gary Peters

BY Sunday, June 11, 2017 08:24pm

Sen. Gary Peters has focused his recent efforts on clearing the regulatory path for the advent of autonomous vehicles. In the coming weeks, the first-term U.S. senator plans to introduce bipartisan legislation to open up that regulatory framework. Peters sat down with MiBiz at the Mackinac Policy Conference to discuss his autonomous vehicle legislation, as well as his push for further infrastructure investments. 

What will the autonomous vehicle legislation accomplish?

It’s comprehensive legislation to create an open regulatory space to allow the innovation to move forward. Right now, the auto regulations are very detailed, very prescriptive. Unfortunately from a regulatory standpoint, the technology’s moving a whole lot faster than what regulations come in, because technology’s on an exponential pace and regulations work on their normal snail pace. It’ll be bipartisan legislation (and the co-sponsor, John Thune, R-S.D.) is the chairman of the Commerce Committee, so that usually bodes well for its passing. 

Is that along the lines of how the city of Pittsburgh rolled out the red carpet last year for Uber to come test autonomous vehicles?

It is the same, but on a national scale. We have federal safety regulations so the states can’t supersede it. Those federal rules say, for example, ‘A car must have a steering wheel … and a car must have a brake pedal.’ Those are federal motor vehicle rules. Obviously, a self-driving car won’t have a steering wheel and it won’t have a brake pedal. All of our regulations assume a human being in command of the vehicle. Now that you take the human being out, that means you need a whole new regulatory framework.

Can you share some details of the legislation?

Without getting into all the details, because we’ll wait until we introduce it — we’re still working it through — but it’ll basically allow some waivers for companies to allow these cars to get on the road. We’re also considering safety aspects because although there could be accidents, we’ll try to limit accidents and make them as safe as possible when they do happen.

Given how fast the technology for autonomous vehicles is developing, how would you suggest that municipalities begin working to implement policies around the issue?

Michigan has actually passed some very forward-looking legislation, and I think that should be looked at as a model for other states to be passing. In the short run, it’s good for us because it gives us a competitive advantage. If you’re going to test these vehicles and develop the industry, you’re going to need a federal framework — which I’m working on — and you’re going to want to be in a state that has a flexible state framework, and Michigan has that.

You can’t deny that it seems as though Silicon Valley is still the leader in this technology. Where do you think Michigan stacks up? Can it overtake Silicon Valley? 

Yeah, there’s no question that Silicon Valley has a significant competitive advantage because of their work in I.T. and computer science and computer innovation, but Michigan is in a unique place because we’re already the center of auto manufacturing. Actually, I took a recent trip to Silicon Valley to meet with a number of these companies and get a sense of some of the work that they’re doing and challenges and the opportunities. 

What did you learn?

I met with one who is a leader in this area and they actually said to me they had contemplated building cars themselves, not only designing the computers that steer the automobiles but actually building the cars. Then they went to Detroit, and they visited some auto plants, and they realized, ‘This is a really complex business.’ This is not something they’re going to get in. They decided to partner with automobile companies that know how to do this for a living.

So is that where Michigan steps in?

That’s correct. That’s where we are. (Silicon Valley is) not going to be building cars. We’re still going to be building them, and we’re building them and designing them here. We already have the R&D centers for the Big Three in Michigan, but we also have the major R&D for Toyota in Ann Arbor and Nissan in Farmington Hills. All of our suppliers are doing major R&D far in excess of things that happen in California.

Shifting gears a bit, what are you hearing about potential federal spending on infrastructure?

I’m hoping we have an infrastructure bill. President Trump certainly talked about it a lot during the campaign, but he has not offered any proposal. I’ve been part of proposals. We’ve introduced a number of proposals that increase funding for roads and bridges and sewers and critical infrastructure like the locks at the Soo, but we need to see some leadership from President Trump.

What would that look like?

Right now, what I hear from most of my Republican colleagues is that although they support infrastructure, they’re not willing to pay for it. I’m happy to join with President Trump if he has that infrastructure program, but I think we’re waiting to see some leadership from him over the Republican caucus.

You’ve been publicly supportive of upgrades to the Soo Locks in the U.P.  What makes that such a critical infrastructure component?

Some folks have characterized the Soo Locks as the Achilles’ heel of manufacturing in North America, and so no one would be insulated from that. The manufacturing that goes on in the west side of the state, it needs steel and raw materials. This is really a national issue. 

Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes. Courtesy photo.

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