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The 3 basic elements to building self-driving cars

Sense the road, map the road, negotiate your place on the road.

Those are the three key components to building autonomous cars, according to Mobileye chief technology officer Amnon Shashua, who spoke with CNBC on Thursday.

Shashua, who is also a co-founder of Mobileye, told "Squawk Alley" that the 40 driverless cars the company will begin to test in 2017 require the three capabilities to successfully maneuver human traffic. The first element, sensing, is well developed already, the CTO said.

"It's relatively mature because of the many years of driving assist. Driving assist is all about … interpreting sensing to prevent collisions," Shashua said.

But the other two components are far more complicated, he said. One is a highly logistical, extremely detailed mapping system that gives the car information on its location and the roads surrounding.

"These are called high-definition maps," Shashua said. The difficulty, he said, is "how you do it efficiently [and] lower the cost."

The third and possibly most crucial element to the success of autonomous cars is, in Shashua's words, "the reason we take driving lessons."

"We don't take driving lessons in order to train our sensing. We know how to see. We take driving lessons in order to understand how to merge in chaotic traffic," he said.

Mobileye's tertiary mission is to help driverless cars understand how traffic rules and driving habits change from place to place.

For example, "In Boston, people drive completely different[ly] than when they drive in California," Shashua said. "What we learn to do is negotiate."

However, complications arise when equipping the car with the robotics necessary to teach it to "negotiate" the way human drivers do — by motion rather than speech or signal, Shashua said.

"Our motions signal to the other road users our intention … and some of them are very, very complicated," he said.

Nevertheless, Mobileye has big plans for its autonomous vehicles, according to the technology chief.

"This is the beginning of a five-year plan where in 2021 we are going to launch thousands of vehicles that are autonomously driven — tens of thousands of vehicles that will be autonomously driven on highways, and a few thousands of vehicles that will be autonomously driven inside cities," he said.

Shashua spoke to CNBC from the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.