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A rise in autonomous cars may cause a drop in organs available for transplant

by Eric Frederiksen | December 31, 2016December 31, 2016 7:00 am PST

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We’ve been successfully transplanting organs for over half a century now, and doctors are getting better at it all the time. There’s always been a shortage of organs available for transplant, though, since most of us are busy using them. That shortage, Slate argues, is going to get worse thanks to the nearing wave of autonomous cars. In short, a big portion of transplanted organs come from fatal traffic accidents in the United States. As cars get better at warning us about oncoming hazards and eventually take the job over for us completely, the thousands of people killed in traffic accidents each year will sharply decline.

At first blush, this sounds pretty silly; it’s almost like asking what all the doctors are going to do if we start curing cancer. But there’s a truth to it: when a new industry emerges or one changes the way we live significantly, there are cultural side effects. The mobile phones we cover here every day have had countless side effects we couldn’t have guessed and others we’d anticipated when the explosion began years ago. Pay phones have all but disappeared in America, making mobile phones virtually required for all but a lucky few. In less developed countries, they become a literal lifeline and connection to the world that simply didn’t exist before. As technology changes, we change.

Change is Inevitable

Similarly, as autonomous cars inevitably make the roads safer, we’ll have fewer traffic accidents, and indeed, fewer organs available for transplant. That’s just a fact. If we want to take Slate‘s article as a suggestion that automated cars are a problem, then it comes across like any of the countless “Millennials are ruining yet another industry” articles that blame problems on change itself rather than on a failure to adapt.

Slate‘s analysis suggests a few ideas, such as an opt-out donor program rather than opt-in, which would make every driver who doesn’t opt-out a potential organ donor. Even as we approach a world where consumer-grade autonomous vehicles are a reasonable possibility, though, we’re also approaching a world where growing and printing human tissue is possible. Earlier this year, researchers implanted living, functional human tissue that had been printed by a 3D printer into a test animal. Bones are already a reality, and researchers are already working on things like kidneys, though we’re not quite there yet. But the same way we’re making huge strides in autonomous cars, printing human tissue is becoming a reality quickly. The same way the US Department of Transportation wants to standardize inter-car communication, governmental health organizations will have to regulate this new industry, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that, as automotive deaths decline, the gap in available organs may be filled by technology.

It’s a weird angle to take, but it makes sense to think about. If we anticipate the way technology will change our lives, we can look for solutions before the problem is a dire one.

Slate

Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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