Technology is moving faster and faster, almost seemingly overnight. You buy one phone, thinking it’s the best of the best, and a week later, you see a commercial for something bigger and better. You purchase a car at your favorite Fort Collins automotive shop based on the features available to make your drive easier, and then find out a month later that advances in technology have made it even better. Now, they’re talking about autonomous cars everywhere you go.

The car that can drive itself–seems scary, but you know that down the road, it very well may be commonplace. You won’t have to worry about texting and driving–so they say–the car is going to know just where to go, so you can text away without worrying you’ll crash or get pulled over. Google is leading the charge towards a self-driving car, and in the process, mapping the world like crazy, literally leaving no stone unmapped. But do they need to be?

Whether or Not to Map

Despite the fact it is extremely costly and time consuming to map every street, tree, rock, and building, Google says it’s the only way. They would install this map in the autonomous cars so that you didn’t have to bring it to the auto shop in Fort Collins after a crash involving something that the car would have known was there thanks to the map. The idea works for Google because they already have an extensive mapping information. They have the upper-hand.

What about smaller companies that don’t have Google’s resources? Can they turn out a product that’s just as useful and safe without a map? Raj Rajkumar has done it–he is an expert on autonomous cars at Carnegie Mellon University, and has created a Cadillac with modifications that make it automated, a Reuters report notes.

How He Did It

Rajkumar just turned to instruments like video cameras, radars, and laser scanners (six in all). After installing all of the above to the car back in 2013, it drove itself a total of 33 miles to an airport. No humans, no maps.

Uber has partnered with the University in order to make its cars autonomous, and many automakers are working on their own idea of a self-driving car. Apple is in on the autonomous car idea as well. There really is no way to know just who is going to hit the market with their version first–there is more than just design and function hurdles to overcome. There is also the matter of current transportation regulations and legalities regarding driverless vehicles.

The Option to Map

As previously mentioned, for those companies that aren’t Google, it can be outrageously costly to map the streets of one state, let alone the entire country. An autonomous car can position itself on the road thanks to GPS location technology, but Google takes it a step further. The company makes 3-D maps thanks to laser scanners, and after analyzing the data, the car is able to tell exactly where it is in relation to stop signs, traffic signals, and things like trees and other buildings.

The cars they’ve designed thus far feature on-board sensors with a rotating laser on the roof of the car that constantly scans for unpredictable obstacles like pedestrians and cyclists. The cars even receive up-to-the-minute road condition updates in case it starts to rain or snow.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, a car that drives itself based on information gathered from sensors is the best way to go if you are driving around a big city or commuting to work. Autonomous cars guided by map are best for smaller environments that don’t change much, like college campuses.

What is known: advances must be made in both map technology and sensor technology in order for a car to be trusted to drive itself. They have to be foolproof and failproof–otherwise you’ll be in your car service in Fort Collins for repairs after it crashes itself!

Where do you stand on autonomous cars? Do they excite you, or does the idea frighten you?