One of the great things about self-driving automobiles is they should be much safer than ones driven by humans today.
Last August, Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, told the Wall Street Journal:
“Each year, more than 30,000 Americans die and many more are injured in car accidents, the vast majority of which are caused by human error. Driverless cars could eliminate 90% of these deaths and injuries.
If you read about the safety goals of self-driving cars, you will know this is one of their greatest features. As the technology matures and more data is collected during the next 3-4 years via the millions of miles self-driving test vehicles will collect, I suspect, by the time these cars hit the road officially in the 2020-2022 time frame, they will have the kind of sensors, cameras and AI-based instructions in them that will deliver on the promise of a higher level of driving safety.
As I have surveyed and studied the landscape for autonomous vehicles and marveled at its potential, I am concerned about one downside I see as these cars become safer and reduce traffic deaths significantly.
A member of our family was recently the recipient of a dual lung transplant from a person who died in a car crash and donated their lungs to this person. Although the rules behind this donation will never allow us to know who donated the organs, we do know it came from a victim of a fatal crash. As we waited at the hospital for the delivery of these new lungs so they could be transplanted, we were highly conflicted. We were very concerned for the family of the person who donated the lungs and the fact their loved one had just died. But we were also incredibly grateful they had an organ donation card so that, upon their death, the lungs could be used to save our family member’s life.
That lung transplant took place last June and I am glad to say the lungs have been accepted by the family member’s system and they are on the way to recovery. They still have a tough road ahead to get back to full health but, without the transplant, they would have died. Being close to this issue has made me realize how important the organ transplant program is and if you have not designated your organs for donation should something happen to you, I encourage you to do this as I personally understand how much this can impact the lives of the person and the family that receives them.
But if autonomous vehicles do reduce automobile deaths by 90%, this could have a dramatic and serious impact on the organ donor program. An article in Slate spells out the unintended consequences of fewer deaths due to safer driving with autonomous vehicles:
“Since the first successful recorded kidney transplant in 1954, organ transplant centers have been facing critical shortages. Roughly 6,500 Americans die waiting for an organ transplant each year, and another 4,000 are removed from the waiting list because they are deemed too sick for a transplant. Since 1999, the waiting list has nearly doubled from 65,313 to more than 123,000. Liver and kidney disease kill more people than breast cancer or prostate cancer, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects the incidence of these chronic diseases to rise along with the need for more organs.
It’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can contribute transplants, among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads (a number that, after years of falling mortality rates, has recently been trending upward). Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations comes from the victim of a vehicular accident.”
In the case of the person who donated their lungs to our family member, they also donated a heart, kidneys, liver and corneas so several people benefited from this tragic death. What they did is amazing and admirable even though it happened via their death.
As the Slate article stated, only 1 in 5 organs come from the victim of a vehicular accident so there are other ways for organs to become available but deaths from auto accidents are the most reliable source for these organ donations.
Given the number of people on the waiting lists for organ transplants and the safety features of autonomous vehicles, it appears this waiting list may get longer. The irony is this is one of those real life good news/bad news issues related to the impact of technological advancements. Everyone wants to reduce traffic deaths and, as Mr. Shapiro of CTA states, “Driverless cars could reduce traffic deaths by 90%.” On the other hand, it will also reduce the number of organs available for transplant recipients that could save their lives. Given my personal experience with organ transplants, I am afraid I remain conflicted even though I am a major proponent of technological advancements. But in our world, technology advancements are critical to economic growth and it impacts people in so many ways even if sometimes it has unintended consequences.