When you think of driverless cars, you probably don’t think about there being a shortage of human organs in the world. Regardless, that’s going to be the case.
Driverless and autonomous cars will do significant amounts of good in the world. Driver errors will practically be eliminated, as evidence proves that they will reduce the number of accidents, making our commutes a lot less worrisome. The advantages of autonomous tech are there if we can get over the hurdle of relinquishing control.
However, one unintended side-effect of driverless cars is that the availability of human organs for transplant with is becoming a lot smaller. This all ties back to the push to make cars safer.
Currently, there are more than 127,000 people waiting on the organ transplant list in the US alone. That number has almost doubled in the last 20 years according to Slate.
There are endless restrictions on who can donate organs and even then the donor has to consent before death. Because of this, much of the industry relies on the nearly 35,000 people that die in fatal car accidents each year.
Where organ donations come from
One in five organ donations currently comes from a person that was involved in a car accident. If autonomous vehicles can wipe out even just half of all motor vehicle accidents, then that's a lot fewer organs available to those in need.
Popular Mechanics makes note that this is one of the main reasons that in the US, drivers are asked to become organ donors when they get their driver’s licenses.
If we take a moment to step back from this peculiar dilemma, it seems like a circular problem in terms of mortality. On the one hand, many people will be saved through safer autonomous driving. Their lives will be spared. However, more people awaiting a new organ will die as a result. Essentially, we will address one mortality issue by making cars safer only to push many of those deaths onto another area.
The ethics of these decisions are clear. We should always make the active choice to save lives and make our lives safer, thus we should make cars safer, potentially through autonomous driving. However, that doesn’t mitigate the fact that other people will die because of this decision. It’s similar to the classic trolley paradox.
How driverless cars will affect accidents
Of the estimated 35,000 deaths each year as a result of automotive accidents, driverless cars are estimated to eliminate 94% of those deaths. This would be done by eliminating the errors of human driver input, which accounts for the same percentage of accidents and thus deaths.
The other 6% of accidents aren’t caused by driver error. They’re the result of faulty mechanical work, tire blowouts, etc. However, driverless cars and even further connected cars might be able to cut down on these accidents even further through careful real-time monitoring.
So, on the conservative end, we’re likely talking about a massive reduction in organ donation through car accidents from the current average of 7,000 per year to just 420. That’s thousands of lives potentially at risk.
Don’t worry though, there are a few potential solutions to this issue.
Solutions to solve the driverless car organ shortage
One solution could be legislative in nature: develop an organ market. A system like this would require that multiple laws be amended to allow organ sales. The major problem here is that this would privatize human organs and essentially make acquiring a life-saving organ a pay-to-play endeavor. In all reality, this solution will likely never take place due to the ethical issues contained therein.
A privatized organ system largely favors the wealthy. Arguments could be made that the medical system in the US at least already favors the wealthy in ways that allow intensive treatment, but a privatized organ market takes that idea even further.
The other major solution relies heavily on just what is capable of science, technology, and engineering. Progress is being made in recent years to 3D print organs or even grow needed tissue, like ears, on the patient's body for transplant to the correct location.
One study from Nature Magazine suggests that technology is already at a point that organs could be printed for humans. Scientists and researchers at Princeton have been able to print bone fragments, ears, and other minor organs from living cells. There are also research efforts underway to create more vital organs like hearts, livers, and kidneys. That said, these trials aren’t quite to the point of human trials yet.
It would seem like 3D printing and innovative medical technology is the best solution to this shortage of organs brought about by an unforeseen cause. That said, autonomous vehicles are still going to take many years to fully infiltrate modern roadways. Realistically, it will happen slowly over the next decade. The decline in organ donations will thus be slow, hopefully meaning that it can be better managed with the advancement of medical technology.
Who knew the advancement of driverless cars would slowly deprive the world of human organs? Innovation is weird like that sometimes.