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Driverless Cars Could Trigger Organ Shortages Across the Country

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【Summary】This new layer of safety is bad news for a small (but growing) community of patients waiting for organ transplants. At the moment, an average of 6,500 US-based residents die each year due to long waiting lists, while 4,000 individuals who are on the list get removed due to their sickly condition.

Original Michael Cheng    Jan 05, 2017 6:10 AM PT
Driverless Cars Could Trigger Organ Shortages Across the Country

One of the major benefits of self-driving technology is its ability to curtail mortality rates. With expert-level driving skills and endless consistency, autonomous vehicles are predicted to save up to 32,000 lives annually, according to Christopher A. Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. That figure is 91 percent of the total number of people killed annually on public roads across the country (35,000).

This new layer of safety is bad news for a small (but growing) community of patients waiting for organ transplants. At the moment, an average of 6,500 US-based residents die each year due to long waiting lists, while 4,000 individuals who are on the list get removed due to their sickly condition. Extended life expectancy rates are on the rise and it's not helping curb this morbid trend. This can be seen in the number of new patients on organ transplant waiting lists, nearly doubling since 1999 – from 65,313 to 123,000.

"What's worse, organ donations are already on the decline, meaning that demand for organs would increase even without the advent of self-driving cars," said Richard Read from The Car Connection.

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Zero Highway Deaths

Considering that roughly 20 percent of organ donations come from car accidents, healthcare groups are concerned about losing one of their top sources for human organs. To clarify, the industry isn't using this as a reason to stop the development of autonomous vehicles. Saving lives on public roads may actually help reduce the number of patients on organ transplant waiting lists, specifically those who were put on the list due to sustaining injuries from car accidents. But for patients suffering from non-vehicle related medical conditions, such as cancer, kidney disease or heart failure, a decrease in organ availability is a serious concern.

Individuals affected by this trend have around five years to come up with an alternative to relying on donations from vehicular accidents. During this period, drivers will be equipped with semi-driverless features and eventually fully autonomous vessels without steering wheels (SAE L5 autonomy). Based on this timeline, the shortage will slowly swell, as more vehicles become autonomous. Ambitious goals created by the federal government, like "zero highway deaths" in the next 30 years, could speed up the proliferation of this trend.

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Solutions and New Organ Programs  

Solutions to boosting organ availability must come from organizations that have the capacity to take immediate legislative action. For example, the Department of Transportation may launch a requirement that automatically signs up drivers (or passengers for driverless cars) as organ donors. Reviving legal organ sales (suggested by Ian Adams and Anne Hobson from Slate) is another solution to this issue; though it could open up such programs to black market dealers.

"We're all for saving lives—we aren't saying that we should stop self-driving cars so we can preserve a source of organ donation," explained the Slate writers. "But we also need to start thinking now about how to address this coming problem."

A unique solution to lack of organs for transplant procedures is 3D-printing. Bio-tech companies, like CELLINK, are already developing technology to streamline the printing of organs.


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