Driverless cars are going to do a lot of good in the world. They will eliminate driver error, reduce accidents, make our commutes easier, but there is one thing that is less than advantageous, the world’s organ shortage is going to get worse, much worse.
Right now, more than 127,000 people are waiting on the organ transplant list in the US alone, a number that has almost doubled since 1999, according to Slate. Since there are so many restrictions on who can donate organs, much of the industry actually relies on the nearly 35,000 people that are involved in fatal car accidents each year. According to Hod Lipson in his book, Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, 1 in 5 organ donations currently come from someone involved in a car accident. Popular Mechanics also points out that this is why DMVs across the nation are so sure to ask whether you would like to be an organ donor.
Stepping back here, it seems like a circular problem. On one hand, many people will be saved through safer autonomous driving, on the other, more people will die as a result. In essence, we have addressed the issue of car crash deaths only to make another fatality problem worse.
Of the estimated 35,000 deaths each year in automotive accidents, driverless cars could theoretically eliminate 94% of such deaths as a result of eliminating driver input. The other 6 percent of accidents are not caused by driver error, however, they could theoretically still be mitigated by driverless cars. So, on the conservative end, we are talking about a reduction in organ donation through car accidents from 7,000 a year to just 420, on a conservative spectrum.
There are a few solutions to solve this issue, each posing a number of complex issues. Slate proposes a solution that is legislative in nature: develop an organ market. A system like this would require the amendment to the law that prohibits organ sale, essentially privatizing human organs. This discussion sounds morbid, but it is a discussion that engineers, legislators, doctors, and the world are going to need to have in the coming years.
The obvious drawback to this system is it favors the wealthy. Arguments can be made that the current system favors the wealthy in ways that allow intensive treatment, but this new system would practically keep anyone without money from getting a transplant. Given current methods of crowdsourcing and fundraising, there would still be ways to afford organs for the less fortunate, but it poses tricky ethical issues when dealing with human life.
The other solution relies heavily on science, technology, and engineering. Significant progress has been made in recent years in advancing 3D printing of organs. One study from Nature Magazine proposes that technology is already ready to print organs for humans. Researchers from Princeton have been able to print ears, bone fragments, and other minor organs made of living cells. Efforts are also underway to print more vital organs like hearts, livers, and kidneys, but they are not quite to the point of human trials just yet.
It would seem like 3D printing poses a solution, but one that isn’t quite ready yet. However, this may end up being okay. Autonomous vehicles will likely take many years to fully infiltrate the system, meaning that the decline in automotive deaths will be slow, so too will the decline in available organ donors.
Who would have thought that automotive innovation would pose such difficult ethical and scientific problems for the rest of the world?