When developing driving tests for robot cars, complications abound

Robots, unlike humans, cannot drink. They also cannot be distracted and cannot fall asleep at the wheel.

But is a sober computer necessarily safer than a drunken driver?

That’s a question facing car companies and regulators alike as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration takes steps to both promote adoption of autonomous vehicles and ensure road safety.

In a country where 35,000 Americans are killed each year in automobile accidents, the promise of self-driving cars is clear.

Take the driver out of the car, advocates say, and fully autonomous vehicles could all but eliminate the majority of crashes.

Human error causes 90 percent of accidents, with drunken driving, distracted driving and driver fatigue contributing to 41 percent, 10 percent and 2.5 percent of crashes, respectively, according to the Department of Transportation.

Even safe human drivers could theoretically be outdone by autonomous vehicles (AVs), whose sensors are far more sophisticated than human eyes. While human drivers can see an average of 50 meters down the road, radar, lasers and cameras allow AVs to spot objects up to 200 meters away.

Those theoretical advantages of self-driving cars have yet to be proved, and experts say the technology will come to market before we can ever definitively demonstrate that AVs are safer than human drivers. The question that then remains is how to decide when the technology is safe enough.

“We are at a point now where we are trying to develop a driving test that instead of just covering a three-point turn and parallel parking can cover 99.9 percent of scenarios a car would encounter on the road,” explains Chan Lieu, former director of government affairs at NHTSA, who now advises the industry group Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. “We are all jointly, between the industry and the agency, still trying to figure that out.”

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