An unexpected side effect in a driverless world

24th November 2015
Joe Bush

Although a world where all the cars on the road are automated is still some way off, the reality is they already exist in parts of the US such as California and Florida, and the development of driverless systems for many of the world’s traditional automotive manufacturers is well underway.

The potential benefits as we usher in the age of the driverless car are numerous, including reducing traffic congestion and travel times, road infrastructure, assisting ageing drivers and even helping to reduce criminal activity through more sophisticated GPS and even a ‘kill engine’ scenario . One of the most significant advantages of a road network predominantly populated by automated cars is of course safety, and a reduction in the level of road traffic accidents.

Despite the fact that deaths on our roads have actually been in steady decline (due to a drop in the number of drink driving fatalities, and increased and improved safety features within the car – air bags, seat belts etc), fatalities on the road are still one of the main causes of all deaths across the globe, with the vast majority of these being caused by human error – to say nothing of the financial cost of road traffic accidents, which is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Therefore, driverless cars still represent a huge opportunity to save lives.

However, this in turn could create a fascinating, if albeit macabre, problem. After natural causes of death, road traffic accidents are the largest contributor to organ donations, meaning that the thousands of lives that would potentially be saved by automated vehicles would lead to a shortfall in the number of available transplant organs. This is a worrying thought when you consider that approximately 18 patients a day die waiting for an organ in the US.

This means that the technology around 3D printed organs will have to come of age in order to take up the slack. Bre Pettis, founder and CEO of the 3D printing company, Makerbot, stressed that if accidents and deaths on the roads are reduced, then a whole other problem is created - namely where to get organs.

There are current challenges around raw materials when it comes to 3D organ printing, but the arrival of autonomous vehicles onto the market will likely help 3D printed body parts become a reality, making for a surprising link between the two technologies.

The versatility of 3D printing is continuously increasing, for example a prototype outer ear was showcased at the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York earlier this year. However, Jennifer Lewis, a bioengineer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts also stressed that the architectures of organs such as kidneys and the liver are highly complex and difficult to duplicate with 3D printing technology.

This is because 3D printers create hard objects by using thin layers of plastic or metal. These can be used by doctors for things like implants but soft tissues like organs are more difficult to create due to weight. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have created a special type of gel that can be used for soft object 3D printing. This printing method is named FRESH, or ‘Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels,’ which essentially solves the supporting weight issue by printing a gel inside another gel.

Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon commented, “Not only is the cost low, but by using an open source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimise what we’re doing and maximise the quality of what we’re printing. It has really enabled us to accelerate development of new materials and innovate in this space. And we are also contributing back by releasing our 3D printer designs under an open source licence.”

So, even if demand is likely to outweigh supply when it comes to organ donors, advances are certainly being made within the 3D printing space and going forward, it will be interesting to see how the advent of the self-driving car will help accelerate development in this sector.

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