Howes: Peters touts Mich. military mobility cred in DC

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

When President Donald Trump touts his plan Tuesday to reinvest in the American military, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters will be there to make a statement.

Not with words, but with his guest at the president’s address to a joint session of Congress. Peters, the Bloomfield Hills Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will be joined by Paul Rogers, director of the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

The senator’s point: the Detroit auto industry isn’t the only asset in southeast Michigan pushing deeper into the evolving mobility space of driverless vehicles connected to roads and themselves by advanced technology. The Army is, too, and it’s doing it at what’s known as TARDEC in Macomb County.

There, some 1,900 civilian engineers, scientists, professionals and support staff backed by a $600 million budget are devising ways to leverage some of the same technologies animating self-driving cars in the service of predictable — and not so predictable — military applications.

This is “significant competitive advantage for southeast Michigan,” Peters said Monday. “This is about artificial intelligence as well. I’ve always thought we needed to coordinate more with private industry. We need to expand that.”

He’s right, and now may be just the right time to do it. The Trump administration’s professed intention to rebuild the nation’s military parallels a pledge to reform corporate tax policy and cut costly regulations, a potential virtuous circle for both TARDEC and the southeast Michigan-based auto industry.

Call it an Arsenal of Democracy for the 21st century, the chance to develop and deploy next-generation technology applicable as readily to transformational combat as it is to a new definition of personal mobility. And to do a lot of it in the birthplace of the American auto industry.

The opportunity is not lost on Peters. As a member of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, he’s quickly come to understand that autonomous technology is poised to transform armed combat as surely as it will transform the automotive space born in this corner of the state.

During a recent chat about Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter, he says a ranking Marine officer said the plane would be the last to be flown by a human pilot. Like drones used to deliver deadly missiles to targets around the world, the F-35’s successors likely would be piloted remotely, he predicted.

It’s a remarkable prospect, one that Peters says is not lost on Defense Secretary James Mattis or others paid to anticipate how technology is likely to change combat as fundamentally as tanks and airplanes transformed the World War I battlefield.

“What the auto industry is doing with autonomous systems has a great deal of value for us,” says Rogers. “They’re doing it in economies of scale. When we’re dealing in thousands, they’re dealing in tens of thousands. The price per component comes way down.

“What’s happening now today is very exciting. You have such interest from the commercial space. There’s a lot coming together at the same time. So we can make a lot of strides.”

Southeast Michigan is home to more than 375 research organizations spending roughly $8 billion a year on transportation-related research. Detroit’s automakers, as well as major suppliers, are placing big bets on the emerging mobility space — all in a bid to claim competitive advantage in a global race for position in an estimated $10 trillion transportation services business.

This is all one big, fat opportunity. Not since who knows when has a recapitalized and profitable U.S.-owned auto industry been in a position to leverage technology for its own interests and potentially those of the nation’s military.

Distasteful? It shouldn’t be in a dangerous world where threats can be amplified by technology, too, technology that can be acquired and deployed by whoever has the cash and the capability.

Reminding the new president and members of Congress that Michigan, battered by recession and humbled by bankruptcy, is back in the arsenal-building game is not wrong. It’s smart politics that also happens to be true.

Exploiting that fact is another challenge entirely.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.