Self-driving cars have the potential to be much safer than vehicles on the road today. As Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, told the Wall Street Journal last year, driverless cars could eliminate 90 percent of the 30,000+ deaths and many more injuries that occur on US roads each year.
I suspect that by the time these cars hit the road in the next five years or so, they will have the kind of sensors, cameras, and AI-based instructions that will deliver on the promise of improved safety. But I am concerned about one unintended consequence.
In June, a member of our family was the recipient of a dual lung transplant from a person who died in a car crash. As we waited at the hospital for the delivery of these new lungs, we as a family were highly conflicted. We were very concerned for the family of the person who donated these lungs; they had just lost a loved one. But we were also incredibly grateful that this person had designated themselves as an organ donor so that, in death, they could save a life.
I am glad to say that the lung transplant was a success, and our family member is recovering well. They still have a tough road ahead, but without this lung transplant, they would be dead.
Being close to this issue has made me realize the importance of the organ transplant program. If you have not designated yourself as an organ donor, I encourage you to do so, as I personally understand how much this can impact the lives of the person and the family who receives them.
But if autonomous vehicles do reduce automobile deaths by 90 percent, this could have a dramatic and serious impact on the organ donor program. As Slate noted in December, “it’s morbid, but the truth is that due to limitations on who can [donate organs], among the most reliable sources for healthy organs and tissues are the more than 35,000 people killed each year on American roads. Currently, 1 in 5 organ donations come from the victim of a vehicular accident.”
The person who donated the lungs to my family member also donated a heart, kidneys, liver, and corneas, so many people benefited from his or her tragic death. Given the growing number of people on the waiting list for organ transplants, the rollout of self-driving car technology could make that list grow even longer.
The irony is that this is one of those real-life good news/bad news issues related to the impact of technological advancement. Everyone wants to reduce traffic deaths, but in this case, it could lead to more deaths among those who need organ transplants. Given my personal experience with organ transplants, I remain conflicted even though I am a major proponent of innovation. 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.