What Do Driverless Cars Have to Do With Organ Donors?

Google self-driving cars.
A row of Google self-driving cars outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. –AP

There are a lot of benefits expected to come along with driverless cars. Their collision avoidance technology should dramatically reduce the number of accidents, so insurance premiums might go down, and fewer people will die in tragic accidents each year. This all sounds great to the average driver, but are there any losers in this scenario?

Anyone waiting for an organ donation might think so.

Nationally, one in six organ donations come from a fatal car crash. Estimates by the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. suggest that if 90 percent of vehicles were autonomous, an estimated 4.2 million crashes would be prevented and 21,700 lives would be saved. Where will doctors get their organs?

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Sean Fitzpatrick, spokesperson for the New England Organ Bank, said last year, 33 of the 267 organ donors in New England Organ Bank’s service area (which covers much of New England) were the result of motor vehicle accidents. Thirty-three donors might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that from these 33 donors, 105 organs were recovered for transplant, it becomes more significant – and even more so because we’re in the midst of an organ shortage.

“The fact is, over 6,600 people die in the US every year because an organ transplant doesn’t come in time due to a shortage of donated organs,’’ Fitzpatrick stated in an email.

Fitzpatrick acknowledged that with the advent of seat belts, air bags, and more congested (aka slower) roadways, the percentage of donors that are the result of auto accidents has declined over time. There were 5,454 fewer fatal car crashes in 2012 than 1994, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But Fitzpatrick still said he urges individuals to register themselves as donors on their driver’s licenses (or register online at www.DonateLifeNewEngland.org).

No doctors have approached the organ bank about the potential impact of driverless cars yet, Fitzpatrick said, but he said the donation community is seeking ways to expand the number of usable organs for transplant. In the near future, the bank hopes that certain post-recovery treatments of the organs could expand the use of some organs that currently cannot be used, he said.

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Scientists and engineers are studying various methods for preserving organs like livers, lungs and hearts. Instead of tossing precious goods like lungs into coolers, which only keeps them viable for five to 10 hours, a company called TransMedics in Andover has designed what they call a “lung in a box.’’ The device can circulate blood through lungs and pump oxygen through the lobes, so the lungs keep working outside the body. Though the machine still needs approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, TransMedics is developing a similar device for hearts. If approved, organs that would normally go to waste could be preserved for much longer, allowing doctors more time to find adequate matches, or letting them transport the organs over greater distances.

Another potential option could be 3-D printing.

Harvard materials scientist Dr. Jennifer Lewis and her team have already successfully created tissue interlaced with blood vessels using 3-D printing technology. This was a huge breakthrough because blood vessels are made of thick and complex tissue, but Lewis and her team solved the problem by creating “hollow, tube-like structures within a mesh of printed cells using an “ink’’ that liquefies as it cools,’’ according to MIT Technology Review.

Though building replacement organs is still a semi-distant goal, Lewis’s team is making inspiring steps.

Driverless cars might be something you’ve only thought about when you watched “The Jetsons’’ as a kid. But Google has already created a working driverless car, and Mercedes put their new swanky autonomous vehicle on display at the 2015 North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit this month. Bernard Soriano, the Department of Motor Vehicle’s (DMV) deputy director, has said that all the big name car manufacturers – Nissan, Toyota, General Motors, and Ford – are developing their own driverless car model to peddle to the masses.

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This leap signals that driverless cars aren’t just for big tech companies and luxury manufacturers. They could be hitting the roads before 2020.

David Carlisle, chairman of the board at Carlisle & Co., a consulting company that has researched the impact of driverless cars on the auto industry, said, “All signs I’m seeing show that we’re going to get driverless faster than expected.’’

Carlisle explained that the trucking industry is gunning for driverless technology because it would greatly reduce the cost of freight. “The trucking industry is first in line for this, and they’re pushing, pushing, pushing,’’ he said. “We’re not going to change our highway systems just for a Mercedes going down the road, but with trucks, here we have two ingredients hastening the move.’’

Chris Urmson, the director of Self-Driving Cars for Google, has said he hopes to have driverless cars on the market within five years, and car manufacturers have set similar goals. Hopefully, the rate of medical technology will speed along just as swiftly.

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