It’s one thing for a self-driving car to navigate the sunny freeways around Phoenix. It’s another thing entirely to survive the streets of Manhattan or Detroit, much less in a snowstorm.

That’s why industry experts are watching where carmakers, automotive suppliers and technology companies decide to launch autonomous car fleets. They say companies that successfully roll out robotic cars in congested cities prone to extreme weather will send a strong signal as to who’s leading and who’s playing catch-up in developing the cars of the future.

“What I’ll be looking for to see when they start to launch these things commercially is how many cities are they operating in, and where those cities are,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a Michigan-based automotive analyst with Navigant Research. “Where will they start to deploy? How many vehicles? Are they working reliably? What really matters is not so much the raw miles driven, but rather where have the miles been accumulated.”

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