Are fully functional self-driving cars right around the corner? After years of optimism, we’re starting to see people wonder if they might be further away than people thought. And skeptics point to mapping as a key obstacle.

Writing at the Marginal Revolution blog, for example, economist Tyler Cowen arguesthat “mapping the territory, reliably, will remain the key problem. Until that is solved, driverless cars will be a form of mass transit — except without the mass — along predesignated routes.”

Creating detailed and comprehensive maps is difficult in the sense that it takes a lot of work, but it’s not a hard technical problem. Google has already done it for roads around their corporate headquarters in Mountain View and some of its competitors likely already have the same capabilities. Expanding these maps nationally doesn’t require a conceptual breakthrough, it just takes money — and Google has a lot of money.


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