An Unintended Consequence
Human error causes 94 percent of vehicle crashes, and each year, traffic accidents lead to 1.25 million deaths worldwide. The simple danger of conventional vehicles has inspired politicians on both sides of the aisle, veteran automakers and transportation startups, and thought leaders such as Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson to support the development of autonomous vehicles. These vehicles have the potential to save more than a million lives every year, according to Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute.
But tragic as they may be, traffic accidents have a silver lining: They give others a second chance at life.
Right now, more than 116,000 Americans are waiting for an organ. In 2016, 82 percent of donated organs came from deceased donors — people for whom all brain activity has ceased, but who had many of their organs still intact (the rest of the donated organs come from living donors who continue to live healthy lives after donating an organ like a kidney or liver). Of those deceased donors, 13.6 percent had died in a motor vehicle accidents making motor vehicle accidents one of the largest contributors to organ donations, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
If and when autonomous cars become widespread, then, they might decrease the number of organs available for transplant. Fortunately, leaders in the transplant community believe that technological advances will simultaneously make it easier to get organs to the patients who need them most. But we must work to ensure that this happens.
Ready for the Future
First, nothing is going to change all at once. People will gradually adopt autonomous vehicles, which are unlikely to fully supplant traditional cars for years, if not decades, experts estimate. That should give the doctors and researchers working in the field of organ transplantation plenty of time to address the current limitations of organ matching and allocation, David Klassen, the chief medical officer for the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit that manages the U.S. organ transplant system, tells Futurism. There shouldn’t be much disruption to the organ transplant system at all.
Moreover, the overall rate of organ donation doesn’t necessarily track with vehicle deaths, Klassen notes. Between 1994 and 2015, the number of fatalities per mile driven decreased by 35 percent, largely due to improved safety features in cars such as lane departure warnings and blind spot monitoring. And yet between 2012 and 2016, the total number of donations increased (in part because of the effects of the opioid epidemic).
Of course, we cannot rely on similar correlations springing up in the future, which is precisely why we need to work to ensure the widespread deployment of the necessary technologies.
Technology is already expediting the process of matching donated organs to the patients who most need them.
Once removed from a donor, an organ is only viable for transplant for a few hours. Kidneys may last up to a day, while livers are limited six to 10 hours; hearts are good for perhaps four. To prevent rejection, a donated organ’s tissue antigens must be as closely matched to those of the patient as possible. But because organs can only stay viable outside the body for a few hours, the pool of recipients is limited to the geographical area around the donor. In practice, that means patients often receive organs that are not their ideal match immunologically, according to a 2016 report by researchers from the Organ Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit focused on facilitating breakthroughs in organ preservation.
Let’s say, for example, a patient donates a heart in Maine. It might be the perfect immunological match for a patient in Arizona, but because of geographical constraints, that perfect heart might go to a less suitable transplant recipient in New York instead. The patient in Arizona might get a less-than-perfect heart from a donor in Texas — if she receives an organ at all. If an organ can’t reach a potential recipient in time, sometimes it simply has to be discarded.
In the past, someone had to manually call each potential surgeon to see if they wanted a newly available donor organ. The first patient to receive an offer was always the one who had been waiting the longest, not necessarily the one best matched to the organ or the patient who needed it the most.
Now, doctors use DonorNet, a digital tool designed by UNOS to quickly match a donor organ with the patient most likely to benefit from it. Once an organ is available for transplant, DonorNet ranks all potential matches in the system based on organ-specific allocation policies determined by surgeons, policy makers, and patient advocates. To generate these rankings, algorithms incorporate information such as patients’ medical histories and the distance the organ could safely travel. Then, DonorNet contacts the doctors of all potential recipients simultaneously to speed up the process of finding one willing to accept the organ. Ultimately, the willing surgeon whose patient is nearest the top of the ranking list gets the organ.
With DonorNet, donated organs are allocated more fairly and efficiently. In 2016, it facilitated 24,980 organ donations, a 9 percent increase from 2013.
Engineers and healthcare professionals are working on other projects intended to improve how donor organs are delivered to patients.
Last year, Lung Biotechnology, a company focused on the research, development, and marketing of treatments for fatal lung diseases, commissioned Chinese drone manufacturer EHang to build autonomous drones to ferry organs to hospitals within a 16-kilometer (10-mile) delivery radius. Drones can move organs without relying on potentially congested roadways, so the company hopes its strategy could dramatically increase the number of successful transplants. Martine Rothblatt, the chairman and CEO of Lung, told Digital Trends that she estimates the drone delivery system could save as many as tens of thousands of lives each year.
Klassen is optimistic that researchers will determine new ways to keep donor organs viable for longer. That kind of advance will help the transplant donation network better meet recipients’ needs, even if the number of available organs dips when autonomous cars become widespread. He is impressed by techniques that keep organs alive outside the body, like the one developed by Stig Steen, a heart and lung surgeon at Lund University — they have the potential to change how transplantation is done in the near-term, Klassen said.
Researchers continue to find innovative ways to match more organs to more patients in need, so there’s no reason to fear this potential downside of autonomous vehicles as long as we ensure that the adoption of this technology is ubiquitous. A future in which fewer people lose loved ones in car accidents is, undoubtedly, a sunny one.