Google is well-known for the cars it sends out to take 360-degree photographs for its Google Maps Street View service (which was recently updated to include Antarctica…), but it seems that isn’t the only piece of motoring technology it’s been working on.

The news broke at the end of last week that Google has been developing driverless cars and its test vehicles have so far covered 140,000 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway without human control — although drivers do sit behind the wheel for emergency intervention.

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Google confirmed the story yesterday and gave some more details on the project. The aim is to improve car safety and efficiency, and to free up people’s time — presumably by allowing them to do something other than drive when they’re on a car journey.

The technology used for Google’s driverless cars includes video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder, along with its own detailed map data. Google’s ultimate goal is to reduce the 1.2 million lives lost worldwide each year due to road traffic accidents and cut down on the time spent on road travel.

Car manufacturers have long been working on their own self-driving technology, though none has yet been brought to market. DARPA, the research and development wing of the US military, ran its own driverless vehicle challenge for a number of years and some of its past entrants are now working with Google.

Here’s a video (in German) showing BMW’s automatic parking system in action, followed by a clip showing how Volvo’s automatic crash avoidance system doesn’t work.

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[Google Blog]