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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

A.I. Michigan’s Salvation? Senator Peters Says “YES!”

May 12, 2017

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. – Whatever you think of his politics, U.S. Senator Gary Peters has never come across as a wild and crazy guy.  Well-informed, on top of the issues in painstaking detail, yes.  But it’s hard to imagine him showing the kind of exuberance, say, Joe Biden is known for.  But this year, Michigan’s junior senator is visibly excited about something: Self-driving cars. 

“This will be the most transformational technology since the first car came off the assembly line,” he said during a breakfast interview last week.  “It’s that big. But what really makes it big is that this only works through the use of artificial intelligence,” he noted, meaning “computers that actually are able to learn on the job.”  These cars are coming, he assured me, “faster than anyone thinks,” said Peters, who has a seat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He thinks they are likely to appear first as Uber and Lyft-type vehicles, and it may be a while before many private citizens own one.

But they are coming. 

And while he thinks that will do wonders for safety, that’s not the reason he’s so excited: Peters thinks this has the potential to boost and revitalize Michigan’s economy – much as the original coming of the car industry did more than a century ago.   Making driverless vehicles, he said “has been described as the moon shot for artificial intelligence.”  What that means is that if this works for cars, “it will be able to transform medicine – every single industry will be fundamentally changed.” 

The senator’s goal is to see that this technology, like the auto industry itself, stays here and that as a result, Michigan will not only remain the center of the auto industry, “but this puts us at the center of AI.  I think about this kind of elegant thing – at the start of the 1900s, because of the auto industry, this state transformed the world.  And once again, the auto industry could be powering major transformational changes in our society.  And to have that centered in Michigan again is an example of – potentially – a very exciting future for our state.”

Naturally, the key word is still “potentially.”  There are still technological challenges, as well as regulatory ones.  Cars, Peters noted, are legally required to have steering wheels and certain other features driverless vehicles won’t need. He is currently working with U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) on bipartisan legislation to get rid of regulatory glitches while ensuring these cars remain safe.  But for those worried about machines run amok, the senator notes that 90 percent of accidents are due to human error, “and these machines won’t eat a hamburger or text while they drive.”

For Gary Peters, helping secure this technology would be not only worthwhile on many levels, but a significant political feather in his cap as well.  In 2014, the suburban Detroit Democrat was the only member of his party to win an open U.S. Senate seat in the nation, which otherwise saw a tremendous Republican landslide which included gaining nine seats in the senate.  Peters, now 58, did have a weak opponent, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.  But he also had a long career as a congressman, state senator and lottery commissioner in addition to working as an attorney and stockbroker in the private sector. 

He, like many in both parties, was somewhat stunned by President Trump’s victory last year.  He said the resulting policy chaos has been worse than he expected, “but that has been mitigated by the atmosphere in the Senate, where members tend to be much more collegial than in the House.” 

Peters has never been a single-issue politician, and he, like most members of Congress from this region, is appalled by the suggestion in President Trump’s budget that funding be ended for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  And he’s very worried about Enbridge’s infamous Line 5, which since 1953 has carried millions of gallons of crude oil under the Straits of Mackinac.  Were it to rupture, the senator noted that it could mean an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions for both Lakes Huron and Michigan. 

Peters, a longtime active member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, told me he had asked the chief admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard if he was confident that they could clean up a major spill.  “He said, on the record, no,” he said.  The senator said the much longer above-ground portion of the pipeline in the Upper Peninsula wasn’t safe either, since a break would quickly get into rivers that flow into the lakes.  Peters said he’d very much like to see a timetable for taking Line 5 out of service. “But that’s essentially a state responsibility,” he said.

***

Writing off a Senate race?  Congressman Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo) has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow next year.  That is, until his “Upton Amendment” allowed the Republican health care bill to get through the House by a tiny 217-213 margin May 4.  Among other things, this may well be an indication that Mr. Upton has no real intention of challenging Stabenow. Polls show the bill is intensely unpopular, especially with the sort of swing voters he would need to make a challenge viable. 

The odds of his challenging her were likely never great.  Stabenow has long enjoyed wide popularity.  His fellow former West Michigan congressman, Pete Hoekstra, challenged her in 2012, and lost by almost a million votes.  Look for Republicans to make this, at best, a second-tier effort.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 11, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 harvey bronstein // May 12, 2017 at 8:32 am

    I have known Gary Peters for 23 years. I have great respect for him. I have been a strong supporter and a friend. I am not as exuberant about autonomous vehicles and Michigan becoming the center of the development, but because it’d Gary, I will carefully watch.

  • 2 David Waymire // May 12, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Michigan could indeed become the center of autonomous vehicles (long shot, given that we are not attracting or preparing sufficient numbers of college grads who are the workforce of that industry), but that will not necessarily lead to greater prosperity for workers unless we invest in their retraining and education. We’ve done a lot for the industry….and very little for workers affected.


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