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Detroit News: Peters: Michigan could be leader in autonomous vehicles

Detroit — Autonomous vehicles are definitely coming by 2021 and Michigan could be at the epicenter of the artificial intelligence if domestic automakers are first in making the technology successful, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters said Monday.

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he’s working on legislation with Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, to put out framework for self-driving vehicle regulations, which will promote safety, as he acknowledged an “apprehension on the part of people about having a self-driving car, especially those of us who love driving and are used to being in control.”

“I had a long conversation with now-(Transportation) Secretary Elaine Chao about this ... how we’ve got to make sure that we move forward, have the regulatory framework that balances safety, and at the same token, allow the technology to go,” he said. “Ultimately when the technology is fully deployed, you’ll have transformative impact on safety in a major, major way, where we think we can eliminate most traffic accidents, which will be significant.”

The comments came in an hour-long interview with The Detroit News’ Editorial Board. He touched on other issues, including health care reform, President Trump’s administration and security threats around the world.

Peters said self-driving vehicles need to be on the road for testing, and “we know there’s always the potential for accidents and concerns, but the industry has a huge interest in making sure that there aren’t accidents and this is done as safely as possible.”

Crashes involving autonomous vehicles, Peters admitted, could create “huge consumer blowback.”

“The industry is investing billions of dollars into this, so I think we’re all aligned on making sure this is done in a thoughtful, safe way,” he said.

Ford Motor Co., he said, will have a “production car” ready to be unveiled in 2021 that will be a truly autonomous car.

“That’s pretty soon — in four or five years — and that market will be primarily not necessarily individuals, but it will be fleets that will be using it for Ubers and taxis,” he said.

Peters said he does “feel comfortable” where the Trump administration is regarding the technology. But regulations currently are predicated on a human being driving a vehicle and must be upgraded for self-driving cars.

“The technology is moving very rapidly,” Peters said. “We are on the verge of probably one of the most exciting times in human history to ever live in terms of what we’re seeing not only from self-driving cars to artificial intelligence, which will power this stuff to synthetic biology.

“Our challenge, as policymakers, is public policy moves at a pretty constant rate, which is called a snail rate. We’ve got to figure out how to get ahead of that. It’s going to take a new regulatory framework on how we deal with that to provide flexibility while still protecting folks.”

Also, Peters, who is on Armed Services Committee in the Senate as well as on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Monday that he’s worried about Americans who will lose health insurance with the proposed health care measure from the president.

“I would hope that we wouldn’t be going backwards in terms of the amount of coverage that folks have,” said Peters, adding an estimated 24 million people without health insurance and a spike in premiums for others isn’t acceptable. “The question is, are they going to deal with some of those? And it’s still a work in progress in the House.”

Peters said he’s in favor of bolstering the military for quagmires around the world, especially with Russian aggression. He is also worried about saber rattling in North Korea, but “our European allies have to contribute more” in helping to defend against threats.

On Betsy DeVos, the president’s education secretary who is originally from West Michigan, Peters said it’s “still early” to tell whether she will be successful given her controversial nomination process.

“I want to make sure that she’s about making sure we have a strong public school system in this country and doesn’t undermine public schools,” he said.