Michigan senators: Biden will help make state a center of next-generation autos

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Democratic congressional leaders expressed optimism Friday that the incoming presidential administration will be a partner in advancing policies that would make Michigan a center of the next-generation auto industry.

From expanding electric vehicle tax-credits to investing in clean energy and autonomous vehicle development, they said President-elect Joe Biden is committed to advancing the sectors of the U.S. auto industry that industry leaders have poured resources into as they seek to compete on the global stage. 

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters on the floor of the 2019 Detroit auto show. They expressed optimism Friday that the incoming presidential administration will be a partner in advancing policies that would make Michigan a center of the next-generation auto industry.

"We are living in probably the most exciting time in human history. We are on the verge of major technological breakthroughs that rival what we saw in previous industrial revolutions," Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said during a panel hosted by Troy-based manufacturing nonprofit Automation Alley

Those technological advances are likely to take place "at a speed we've never seen before," which makes it crucial for Michigan and the U.S. to invest in future-facing technology like self-driving vehicles, he said. 

Last week, the leading advocacy organization for automakers in the U.S. announced a policy platform that would make it easier to roll out autonomous vehicles on a large scale. One of their main requests: Enact federal safety rules that apply to self-driving vehicles.

Existing safety standards assume the presence of a human driver, which automakers say prevents mass roll-outs of AVs as they struggle to meet regulations that aren't relevant to their vehicles.

Peters is a sponsor of one of two existing bills that would update those safety rules, though it has stalled in the Republican-dominated chamber in the past. Some observers say Biden's long-standing relationship with GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may make it possible for similar legislation to pass in the coming years. 

"It is the future of the auto industry. We face significant competition from Asian and European companies and manufacturers," Peters said Friday. "We have to make sure we win this race."

Indeed, automakers in the two other major global vehicle markets have invested heavily in both self-driving vehicles and electric vehicles. Chinese consumers still buy the lion's share of electric vehicles sold every year, though American automakers are betting big on electrifying their fleets. 

Biden has pledged to "use all the levers of the federal government” to make the United States the international leader on electric vehicle manufacturing, including spending $400 billion in federal funds to transition to clean energy systems, spending $300 billion on emerging technology including electric vehicles, and pushing for the creation of half a million charging stations across the country. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said the Biden administration has expressed support for both expanding the electric-vehicle tax credit that gives consumers a tax break for purchasing an EV and for using the "purchasing power of the federal government" to invest in electric vehicles. 

Co-chair of the Senate Manufacturing Caucus, Stabenow said it's time for her colleagues to look for sustainable-energy solutions in advanced manufacturing. Henry Ford tinkered with building an electric vehicle at the turn of the 20th century, she said, and it was tax incentives and subsidies from the federal government that tilted the scales toward the internal combustion engine.  

"We picked a winner a hundred years ago and they won. Now it's time to level the playing field."