Self-driving cars should be on track here, lawmaker says

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published November 9, 2016

 Sen. Gary Peters talks about the implications for autonomous vehicles for Michigan industry at Automation Alley Oct. 24.

Sen. Gary Peters talks about the implications for autonomous vehicles for Michigan industry at Automation Alley Oct. 24.

Photo by Terry Oparka


TROY — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters said Automation Alley will host several roundtable discussions in coming weeks on autonomous vehicle and what Michigan companies can do to be in the forefront of this emerging technology. 

Peters spoke to a crowd of about 100 people Oct. 24 at the technology business association headquarters in Troy. 

“We’re excited to have him here,” said Tom Kelly, executive director for Automation Alley. “He’s a staunch supporter of manufacturing. The world is coming back to Michigan.”

“Cars and computers have merged together,” Peters said. 

He said fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road in less than 10 years. 

“We’re in an unprecedented era of technological invention,” said Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Today we have an ever-evolving innovation ecosystem, with advanced manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and connected and automated vehicles.”

Peters said ongoing road improvements must include technology for autonomous vehicles. 

“Infrastructure provides signals to cars. Cars are talking to each other, but the road will also talk to your car as well. The best example in Michigan is if you put sensors in bridges that lets your car know if there’s ice on the bridge … the bridge would know there’s ice covering it … your car will begin braking and taking defensive maneuvers before you have any idea what’s happening,” Peters said. “But you’ve got to build those sensors in. We have to fix bridges. We have to fix roads. While you’re doing it, you put the sensors in now, because it’s pretty difficult to go back in and try to put the sensors in, which will add exponentially to the safety of driving every day.”

He said he was recently in California and saw a billboard advertising training programs in autonomous vehicle development. 

“And I learned about Udacity, a for-profit education organization founded by Stanford grads that offers nano-degrees in artificial intelligence and certificates in automated vehicle development.

“These facts are proof of the work we need to do to change people’s minds about our region. We need to produce this talent at Michigan universities, and we need to retain these folks by ensuring that they will have a competitive job upon graduation,” he said. 

Tom Krent, a Troy planning commissioner representing the city of Troy at the event, serves on the Education and Workforce Committee for Automation Alley. He said that the committee has been working with superintendents of school districts throughout metro Detroit to identify key programs to put students on the path to careers in emerging and existing industry.

 Peters described the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy the U.S. Department of Transportation released in September as “groundbreaking.” He explained that it outlines a 15-point safety assessment. 

“It’s important to get this right,” he said. 

Peters noted that research and testing of autonomous vehicles could take place on a larger scale at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, at the former Willow Run plant. He added that a federal designation of Willow Run as a vehicle test site and subsequent federal funding “could be on a fairly fast track,” possibly before the next presidential administration. 

The Michigan Strategic Fund has slated $20 million for the facility. The total cost for the site is estimated at $80 million. 

“I am hopeful that the spotlight we have shown on ACM will lead to its designation as a national testing and validation center for connected and automated vehicles,” he said. 

The American Center for Mobility is a joint initiative among the state of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the University of Michigan, Business Leaders  for Michigan, and Ann Arbor Spark.

Peters said the ACM testing site would complement the MCity testing facility on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.

 “We have the opportunity to create new industry clusters with ACM and within the broader innovation ecosystem — but the competition is steep,” Peters said. “Texas and California are also vying for these high-paying jobs, to say nothing about our competitors in Europe and Asia. ... We’re in a race,” he said. 

“We know consumers aren’t yet sold on the benefits of these new vehicles. We’ve got to educate ourselves and build consumer trust to ensure safe adoption,” Peters said. 

“The Department of Transportation will streamline a number of procedures to be more responsive to consumers and innovative manufacturers,” he added. “The realization of these policies depends on public feedback. All of you are working in this space every day and have valuable insights into how to make the future of mobility a reality. Success depends on your collaboration.

“Conversations are critically important.”