Chicago could be capital of driverless tech—if politicians stop interfering

This article originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business here.

There's a long and ignoble history of industries, cities and people trying to hold back the inevitable path of progress. So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise last year when the Chicago City Council tried to throw up a roadblock to autonomous driving vehicles.

The council is playing the role of 19th-century blacksmiths, outlining the ills of the internal combustion engine. They're loud. They're noisy. They're dangerous. They'll spook the horses.

But cars came, and they conquered.

Self-driving cars are coming, too, and Chicago could be the center of innovation for all autonomous vehicles of the future. There's already considerable progress from Chicago-based corporate leaders and an opportunity for local technology entrepreneurs to accelerate the pace of innovation.

Burr Ridge-based Innova EV is providing electric (and soon autonomous) car-share vehicles for university campuses and neighborhoods. Lisle-based Navistar is working on predictive cruise control, advanced driver assistance solutions and platooning technology for trucks. John Deere, to the south, had 151 patents in 2015 and has sold self-driving tractors for 17 years. HERE, previously called Navteq, creates the maps that autonomous vehicles will need to see through buildings, around corners and 20 miles in advance to maneuver safely. Boeing has long designed the future of autonomous flight, and companies such as Bosch and BMW are focusing much of their automotive technology innovation teams in the Chicago area.

If we cut through political red tape, Chicago could be the home of autonomous vehicle innovation. Just think of the opportunities we could get if the message was out that such innovation is welcome. Navya, a French autonomous bus company, just opened its U.S. headquarters in Chicago and might consider our city for a new U.S. production facility, if Chicago supported autonomous testing. Our local insurance giant Allstate went to California for its autonomous vehicle research program instead of turning to local universities and this community. Uber had planned our area as a test bed for autonomous testing before the City Council blocked that idea.

At the TechNexus Venture Collaborative, which helps corporations invest and pilot with startups, we've researched the venture ecosystem for connected airplanes with Chicago-based Gogo, and we're now collaborating with Lake Forest-based Brunswick on technologies that will pilot recreational boats to dock themselves. In partnership with several companies, TechNexus will incubate and invest in dozens of young ventures in the next 24 months that include core technologies for autonomous vehicles for mining, marine, aviation, construction, agricultural and other industries.

But as we witnessed with the Chicago ordinance that banned driverless cars, and with aldermen who've taken a stance against new autonomous technology, change doesn't come easily in the policy arena. It disrupts old industries that filter money to the city and state, and finds roadblocks around every legislative corner.

This is a case where public policy is only delaying Chicago's progress and our safety. There were more than 90,000 car-related crashes in Chicago last year, and deadly car crashes in our city were up 79 percent during the first four months of 2017.

The global adoption and success of autonomous vehicles is both inevitable and very near. If our region wants to remain an international leader in transportation innovation, Chicago's business leaders have to elect politicians who support new technologies to drive innovation and investment into our city.

This policy conversation is fresh again on the national stage as tech giants and automotive companies converge to push for innovation. Last month, a U.S. House committee debated 14 bills that Republican lawmakers believe will help advance driverless cars. While there are multiple proposals on the table, the overall point of view is that each state should not have its own safety standards for self-driving cars. In fact, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, noted that "from the front bumper to the back bumper—whether it's a pickup truck or a car or a van—how the vehicle works and is designed should be the province of the federal government as has been the case for more than 50 years."

We may be a long way from final legislation, but these conversations prove that we're making progress to more seamlessly adopt driverless technology across America. Chicago businesses and politicians can help that progress by being an active part of the effort.

Terry Howerton is CEO of TechNexus, an enterprise-focused venture collaborative founded in Chicago in 2007.