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Daily Mining Gazette: Peters tours Tech research facilities for self-driving vehicles, Defense projects

HOUGHTON — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters toured Michigan Technological University’s Advanced Power System Research Center Friday for an update on Tech’s research and development efforts in autonomous vehicles.

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also visited the Keweenaw Research Center to look at projects the university is developing with the Department of Defense.

Peters is one of four Michigan federal representatives who called on the Trump administration to include $200 million in the 2018 budget to support facilities designated as proving grounds for automated testing.

Peters said self-driving vehicles present the biggest transformation in the automobile industry since the first car rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. Self-driving cars could be able to eliminate about 70-80 percent of the 40,000 traffic fatalities each year and eventually nearly all of them, Peters said.

“To be able to eliminate those accidents is truly an incredible technological feat,” he said. “And the remarkable thing is it’s happening right here at Michigan Tech as a world leader.”

Peters said self-driving technology could also save lives in combat zones by removing drivers from logistics operations, which claimed more American lives in Iraq than combat, Peters said.

“It’s very dangerous to be driving fuel through a combat zone,” he said. “With autonomy, with self-driving vehicles, we’re going to be able to save lives, while also really moving a mission forward.”

While touring APS, Peters sat behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Volt, part of Tech’s fleet under the Department of Energy’s NEXTCAR (NEXT-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles) program That program optimizes vehicle performance to reduce energy consumption and extending the range of electrical vehicles. The technology being researched could reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent, and increase electrical range by 6 percent.

Peters also toured the Mobility Lab, a mobile education and training facility Tech has taken to local schools and to Washington, D.C.

“We have to have more young people who look at STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, and I think this vehicle really helps bring to life what is a very exciting field and hopefully more young people will choose that as a career choice,” he said.

Last month, Peters and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., announced an effort to explore legislation that advances self-driving technology innovation while making regulation more flexible. For instance, he said at the time, many vehicle safety standards for vehicles are designed with a human operator in mind. Peters said visits to facilities such as Michigan Tech’s and conversations with the experts there are necessary for writing informed bills.

“Regulations move slowly, but as I’ve seen here today, innovation is on a straight line up, and it moves exponentially very quickly, and so we have to really be able to in a more effective way keep up with this innovation but don’t in any way slow it down while at the same time keeping people safe,” he said Friday.

The possible impact on the job market for driverless cars could be decades away. As with any new technology, Peters said, new jobs will also be created that people haven’t anticipated yet.

“Certainly something I think about each and every day is we have to make sure if there are any kind of changes in employment that we have ways to help those folks make the transition, and to train people into different jobs who may just be getting into the workforce right now,” he said.