The folks in Bean-town have peered into their crystal balls and one of the things they’re seeing is self-driving cars. The Boston Globe reported this morning that the city has struck a deal with a group of unnamed tech companies and manufacturers to test autonomous vehicles, beginning in a matter of months. Coincidentally Uber is set to unleash a fleet of autonomous cars (though this particular fleet will include an actual human behind the wheel for safety reasons) on the streets of Pittsburgh later today.
More from the Globe: “If this technology is going to yield benefits for the consumer, we want to make sure it works in the city of Boston,” said Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets. “We want to make sure we’re doing our due diligence and understanding what the implications are. How do we set up the right policies and take the right approach to this so it’s going to have the biggest net benefit?”
Counting Pittsburgh, it seems Boston is the second major city in recent months to commit to exploratory testing. Could Chicago be the third? Here are four reasons why it might.
The mayor is a big Uber fan
His brother, Ari, is also a big investor. Back in 2014 reports started swirling that Rahm’s younger brother stood to make nearly a billion dollars from his Hollywood agency’s dealings with the popular ridesharing company, which is venturing into autonomous territory. On top of that, David Plouffe, a strategist to then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and former White House mainstay, now serves as one of Uber’s most prominent strategic advisors. The mayor has also favored rideshare-friendly legislation that keeps it at a premium in the Windy City (much to the consternation of the highly regulated limousine and cab service industry). Now that Uber has unleashed self-driving cars on the roads of Pittsburgh, it’s easy to imagine the company heading further west to a place that fits its self-driving test criteria and where it’s ostensibly been feeling the love.
Chicago has one of the largest populations in the country
This goes beyond the Uber and ridesharing craze. Chicago is a major city with a major population—nearly 2.7 million people to be more precise. That’s good enough for third on the national charts, behind only Los Angeles and New York. A study in 2015 by Zen99, a resource for folks who depend on 1099s, found that Chicago ranked ninth out of 70 U.S. markets that were favorable for ridesharing users. That’s not counting the untapped potential of autonomous ridesharing either. One could assume that a city that loves alternative modes of public transportation is bound to look closer at the ways self-driving cars impact the broader economy, both commercially and otherwise.
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is here
So is Allstate, based in Northbrook. They’re two of the biggest auto insurance companies in the country and the insurance industry has been wrestling with the notion that self-driving cars may reduce crashes and potentially eliminate them altogether. That poses big questions for State Farm, Allstate, Nationwide, and others, which will soon need to figure out how they’re business plays into the bigger picture. I’m not saying that either will be making a public relations push in favor of self-driving cars, but what better opportunity to do some experimentation while the guinea pig is rummaging around in your own backyard? Let’s assume the worst: self-driving cars get into tons of accidents. Maybe a public relations push on behalf of the insurance companies isn’t so far-fetched after all.
It’s the economy, stupid
The reality is this: Autonomous cars are the future of transportation. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” Rahm and others like to refer to Chicago as the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. If we’re to take that declaration at face value, we need to make the most of our opportunities, which could have huge economic benefits. Tech is big business and presenting Chicago as a tech-friendly hub feeds the narrative while drawing new talent to the city. Being labeled as a pioneer of autonomous transportation and the legislation that governs it has the potential to be hugely beneficial in the long run. I can already imagine Tim Cook pulling up to Apple headquarters in the West Loop. In a self-driving car no less.