- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - With its mostly wide-open spaces and wintry weather, North Dakota would serve as the perfect testing ground for driverless cars and other automated vehicles, a state lawmaker says.

Rep. Ben Hanson is pushing a bill that would allow the testing of the robotic vehicles on state highways. The 28-year-old West Fargo Democrat told fellow - mostly older - members of the House Transportation Committee on Friday that self-driving cars “sound like something out of The Jetsons but they are very real.”

Hanson said a few states have laws in place that allow the testing of driverless vehicles but North Dakota would be the first “truly rural” state to do so.

“I’d like to be ahead of this and I’d like to be a welcoming partner,” he said.

The measure sets insurance requirements for automated vehicles and requires a person to be behind the wheel to take “immediate manual control” of the vehicle should something go wrong. It also tasks the state Transportation Department with developing regulations for automated vehicles and requirements for operators.

The agency, however, says the so-called “autonomous technology” is too new to endorse or develop standards for it.

“To put it bluntly, we are not ready to evaluate driving skills or license drivers using these vehicles in our system,” Glenn Jackson, director of the state Transportation Department’s driver’s license division, told lawmakers.

Self-driving vehicles raise a spate of issues, including what would happen to an operator in the vehicle if that person is intoxicated and the vehicle is involved in a crash.

“These questions reflect the concern that we get this right the first time to ensure all of our citizens are safe on the highway,” Jackson said.

Hanson said the technology has “wonderful implications for persons with disabilities and the elderly,” and could negotiate “autonomous-friendly” interstates that could more efficiently move North Dakota products to market.

The House Transportation Committee will continue testimony on the bill next week.

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