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Beyond driverless cars

Jack Lessenberry logo

I sat down the other morning with Gary Peters, Michigan’s junior U.S. Senator, to get his take on what’s happening in Washington and how that’s playing out here.

Peters is beginning his third year in the Senate; in 2014, during a historic Republican congressional landslide, he was the only Democrat in the nation to win an open seat, when he was elected to replace Carl Levin. Historically, the first term is crucial for U.S. Senators from Michigan; if they are not defeated when they first run for reelection, they tend to stay for decades.

So these are key years for Peters -- and so far, he’s been heavily focused on Michigan – though, at the beginning of this year, he was happy to get a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Carl Levin chaired for years.

Peters, who is 58, had a wide-ranging background before entering the Senate. He has both a law degree and an MBA, and has been a stockbroker and a lottery commissioner in addition to serving in Congress and the state Senate.

I knew he’d been as surprised as many others when Donald Trump won, and I was curious to know whether he thought the first three months had been better or worse than he had expected. “Worse,” he told me, referring to the general policy chaos.

However, he indicated that was somewhat mitigated by the atmosphere of the Senate, where members traditionally are much more collegial than in the House.

Peters fears that the President’s crackdown on immigration is going to have a devastating effect on both agriculture and tourism.

“The ag industry is very concerned that they aren’t going to get workers, that their crops are going to rot in the fields,” he said.

That’s true of hotels and restaurants on Mackinac Island as well.

Peters is also deeply concerned about pipeline safety, particularly Enbridge’s infamous Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac.

(Read more about Line 5 here.)

The Senator, a longtime member of the naval reserve, told me he had asked the chief admiral of the U.S. Coast Guard if he was confident we could clean up a disaster if the pipeline were to break.

“He said, on the record, no,” says Peters.

Peters also noted that even the above-ground portion of Line 5 in the Upper Peninsula is never far from a network of waterways that flow into the lakes.

But the Senator is hugely enthusiastic about driverless cars, and the technology they represent.

“They will come quicker than anyone anticipates,” Peters said.

He’s now working with Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota on legislation to streamline regulations while ensuring safety.

What he’s most hopeful about, however, is that this could not only be the ticket revitalizing Michigan’s economy. Peters thinks that along with the nation’s automotive industry, the heart of AI – the artificial intelligence industry that makes these cars possible may -- end up in Michigan as well.

“Self-driving is probably the most transformative thing to happen to the auto industry since the first car came off the assembly line,” Peters said. "This is the moon shot for artificial intelligence.” If this all works, he added, the auto industry, which transformed the world a century ago, could end up doing so again. “There’s something very elegant about that,” he said.

Beyond elegant, if it turns out to be true.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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