A Potential Downside Of Self-Driving Cars


One of the great things about self-driving automobiles is that they should be much safer than ones driven by humans who drive them today.

Last August Gary Shapiro, 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 that this is touted as one of their greatest features. As the technology matures and more data is collected during the next 3 to 4 years from the millions of miles self-driving test vehicles’ trips, I suspect that by the time these cars hit the road officially in the 2020-2022 time frame they will have the kind of sensors, cameras, and Artificial Intelligence (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 their potential, I am concerned about one downside I see even 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. Although the rules behind this donation will never allow us to know who donated these organs, we do know they came from a victim of a fatal crash. As we waited at the hospital for the delivery of these new lungs so that they could be transplanted, we as a family were highly conflicted. We were very concerned for the family of the person who donated these lungs and the fact that their loved one had just died. But we were also incredibly grateful that the crash victim had an organ donation card so that upon death these lungs could be used to save our family member’s life.

That lung transplant took place last June and I am glad to say that these lungs have been accepted by this family member’s system and that person is on the way to recovery. There’s still a tough road ahead to get back to full health, but without this lung transplant death would have been imminent. 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 many people benefited from this tragic death. What they did is amazingly admirable even though it came through their death.

While there are other ways for organs to become available, deaths from auto accidents are the most reliable source for organ donations. Given the number of people on the waiting lists for organ transplants and the safety features of autonomous vehicles, it appears that this waiting list may get longer with self-driving vehicles. The irony is that 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 Gary Shapiro of CTA states, “driver-less cars could reduce traffic deaths by 90%.” On the other hand, it will also reduce the number of organs available for transplants that could save lives. Given my personal experience with organ transplants, I am afraid that 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.


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