Chicago is quietly preparing itself to be a testing ground for driverless cars as officials are currently in the process of identifying “innovation zones” within the city that could pilot autonomous vehicle projects and other new technologies.

The City is in the process of pre-approving parts of Chicago to be ready for driverless cars, said Brenna Berman, the CIO at Chicago’s Department of Innovation and Technology. It’s part of a concept the city is calling the Beta City Initiative, an ambitious and wide-ranging plan within Chicago’s official Tech Plan to make the city more tech friendly to local startups and out-of-state tech companies, and prepare the city for future technology.

The Beta City Initiative consists of three parts. The first is centered around the idea of “urban experimentation,” Berman said, and solving large city issues like flooding on the West Side and air quality issues. This includes identifying innovation zones for certain city projects, like driverless cars, and handling policy issues and zoning concerns before the technology hits the streets.

“When you’re dealing with the built environment, there are city processes that can slow you down,” she said. “Anything from permitting to installation to even identifying the best neighborhood for the technology you’re looking at. What we want to do with those innovation zones is kind of pre-approve and prep certain neighborhoods across the city to pilot a technology.”

Brenna Berman (via City of Chicago)

Another element of Beta City–a name Berman says was coined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel–involves reaching out to companies in Silicon Valley, New York, and other national startups about making Chicago their second launch point. Berman said she wants startups founded outside of Chicago to make The Second City their second market.

“It’s easier to get a following in your hometown, whatever your product is,” she said. “It’s really hard to get your second city under your belt … We want to make it really easy for companies that might have started somewhere else to come and launch their product here.”

And finally, Beta City wants to help Chicago startups gain traction by making city government one of their first customers. The City is identifying companies that would make sense for Chicago to partner with, and then be a vocal and visible reference point when startups go sell to other clients, Berman said.

“I have pilot authority within the city code that I can use to be a pilot customer to Chicago startups,” she said. “And sometimes it’s because they offer a technology or a service that we can use here in conducting city business. We’d like to be a customer to our home-grown companies.”

Much of the Beta City Initiative is still under development, Berman said, with aspects like the innovation zones not going live until 2016. But it shows how the city is thinking about the future of Chicago and what role technology will play. For example, Beta City will help accelerate the Array of Things project, and it’s working on projects with UI Labs around using data to combat city flooding problems, and using underground mapping to make construction projects cheaper and more efficient.

But with Google, Apple and Uber all reportedly working on driverless car technology, and with some testing already happening in other parts of the country, many are wondering when Chicago will see its first autonomous vehicle, and which companies are bringing their cars to the Windy City.

“We are talking to a couple of companies. We’re really not at the point yet where we can talk about timing or who we’d be able to partner with,” Berman said. “It’s something that we definitely want to be on the forefront of because we think it’s going to be a really good way to alter our traffic patterns and realize some of the congestion situations we know challenge our residents here in the city.”

Creative Commons Image by Steve Jurvetson