Driverless cars will accelerate the development of 3D-printed organs. Discuss.

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August 19, 2014

Reducing the number of automobile-related fatalities is a good thing, right? Well, maybe not if you're on the waiting list for, say, a liver transplant. And that's why the advent of Google-style driverless cars, which remove human error from the driving equation, will spur the advent of bioprinted organs. At least, that's how Bre Pettis, founder and CEO of Makerbot, sees it.

Pettis espoused this provocative theory a couple of months ago at a conference in Brooklyn, as reported in Fortune. I missed the story at the time, much to my chagrin, but Fortune writer Erin Griffith revisited the topic last week on the Fortune website. Specifically, Griffith crunched some numbers to see if Pettis' theory would withstand closer scrutiny. It did, at least those parts that are not speculative.

"If 10% of vehicles were self-driving, it could reduce the number of accidents by 211,000 and in turn save 1100 lives, according to a 2013 study by the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, DC," writes Griffith. "If 90% of vehicles were autonomous, an estimated 4.2 million accidents would be prevented and 21,700 lives would be saved."

Given that car accidents are the second largest source of donated organs after death by natural causes, that creates a whole new problem. "If we can reduce accidents and deaths," Pettis told Griffith, "where do we get organs? I don't think we'll actually be printing organs until we solve the self-driving car issue."

Bioprinting has made great strides in just the last couple of years, but functioning 3D-printed organs are still a distant reality. We have reported about some of the advances made in this arena at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and San Diego, CA–based Oraganovo, which has made 3D-printed spare (human) parts a component of its 10 year plan.

I'm not sure that I can fully embrace Pettis' premise that driverless cars will put bioprinting on the fast track, but it certainly puts a provocative twist on the economic axiom that supply will find a way to meet market demand.

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