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State Rep. Dan Ruby (R-Minot)

North Dakota lawmakers encouraging self-driving vehicle research

BISMARCK -- U.S. Highway 83 could be named a research site for self-driving vehicles and lawmakers want to encourage development of autonomous vehicles in North Dakota.

Three weeks ago, the Central North American Trade Corridor Association, an organization hoping to create a 265-mile north and south route for self-driving commercial vehicles, submitted an application, with the help of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a testing site designation.

“We believe that we as the state of North Dakota have an opportunity here,” said Grant Levi, director for the Transportation Department. “If we do this right, we can create economic opportunity for this state to get industry to come here.”

With this opportunity and the rapidly growing autonomous industry in mind, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, introduced HB 1202, which instructs NDDOT to “adopt rules to regulate integration of advanced autonomous vehicle technology into the public highway system.”

“We want to make sure that we foster this industry and allow it to grow, but on the other hand we do realize there are some things that may have to be put in place at some point,” Ruby said. “What this will do would be to give DOT some authority to write administrative rules, if and when, in the next two years, we need to do that.”

Ruby said, because the technology is developing so quickly, he doesn’t want to make laws that would inadvertently stop it from coming to North Dakota, which is why he’s suggesting an administrative rule instead, allowing for more flexibility.

“We want the testing; we want the technology when it’s available and safe,” he said. “I don’t want to put any burdens or roadblocks to the things that could take place with this technology ... So, that’s why this is somewhat generic, somewhat general and we have to allow DOT to makes some of those decisions as we go.”

But this generic approach is what has industry nervous.

Leighton Yates, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, and Tom Kelsch, a lobbyist, said the language in the bill was broad, without providing detail or direction for NDDOT in its rulemaking.

“This approach is inconsistent with the approach applied in many other states," Kelsch said. “States should instead be attempting to identify and remove existing impediments under state laws in order to welcome and encourage development growth of this new technology.”

Yates said, for states wishing to promote autonomous driving technology, “the key is having the right policy at the right time in the right place.” He said USDOT has recently put out an autonomous vehicle policy as a guide for states, which he recommends North Dakota follow.

Comments by Ruby and Levi about legislative intent to foster development did put industry’s concerns at ease to a certain extent.

“I know the industry would love to see every state have pretty much the same regulations,” Levi said, in order to prevent a multitude of different regulations to meet. He said the rules the state adopts will be consistent with federal guidelines in order to keep consistency, and the department will work with the industry in their development.

Levi said developers are looking for states with a variety of seasons and weather conditions, wide open spaces, small urban areas and a research support - for which North Dakota fits the bill.

And the state is already leading aerial autonomous technology, said Dave Blair of the CNATCA and the North Dakota Automated Vehicle Coalition.

“North Dakota is uniquely positioned to be in the forefront for the testing of autonomous vehicles as the state is already a leader in testing and development of other technologies,” he said. “Now North Dakota is positioned to expand its efforts to include managing and advancing land-based automated vehicles testing along U.S. Route 83 … We really think this could be another launching pad for our state.”

Marlo Anderson, another CNATCA member, said he was initially unsure about the broad language of the legislation, but after hearing testimony, sees it as a "welcome sign for industry."

"I really feel like if we dont do something this session we will end up following this industry instead of being a leader," he said.