google-stanley.jpgGoogle has licensed the sensing technology developed by a team of Stanford University students that enabled Stanley, a robotic car, to win a 131 mile race through the Mojave Desert last year.

The Mercury News’ Elise Ackerman reports that Google will use the sensing technology — which lets the car map out the terrain in front of it so that it can steer and change gears without a person at the wheel — to map out photo-realistic 3-D versions of cities around the world. The move was made, Ackerman suggests, to help Google regain ground it has lost to Microsoft’s 3-D mapping application known as Virtual Earth.

Ackerman does not clearly explain what is so special about the Stanley technology, presumably because that is the secret sauce, and Google officials wouldn’t tell her. Or perhaps Google wanted mainly to hire Sebastian Thrun (pictured above), leader of the Stanley racing team, who will work art-time at Google under the arrangement, and the licensing will let him continue his work under Google’s aegis.

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, available through the 3-D link on maps.live.com uses a mixture of aerial photography, algorithms and computational power to create replicas of more than 50 cities.

Ackerman says more details about the Google-Stanley deal will be released at the Where 2.0 conference May 29 and 30.

(Inset photo courtesy: Stanford News)