Jun 13, 2022 - Technology

I got to drive on the moon — kind of

Image of a person in a simulator, driving on the surface of the moon.

GM engineers used a simulator to imagine driving on the moon. Photo courtesy of GM

Last week, I hit the biggest pothole I'd ever seen — a crater on the surface of the moon — while driving General Motors' new lunar vehicle in a simulation lab at the company's research center in Warren, Michigan.

Why it matters: The next-generation rover, a joint effort between GM and Lockheed Martin, is the first lunar vehicle developed for long-term, recurring use.

  • With its Artemis missions, NASA wants to create a sustainable presence on the moon, so a few dozen lunar pickup trucks may come in handy as the agency starts to build the necessary infrastructure.
  • Plus, by pushing its electric and autonomous technology to new extremes on the moon, GM hopes to improve the cars it sells here on Earth.

The intrigue: The two companies are building the rover — called the Lunar Mobility Vehicle, or LMV — on spec, without a NASA contract, but it's likely they'll seek one eventually.

  • Their goal is to launch the first autonomous vehicle on the moon by 2025 — before Artemis astronauts arrive — so they can begin collecting valuable information about the lunar surface.
  • The companies are betting that the growing commercialization of space will create additional opportunities outside of NASA as well.
  • The goal is for vehicles to last at least 10 years on the moon, Derek Hodgins, Lockheed's director of product strategy and sales for lunar infrastructure services, tells Axios.

Other companies are working on lunar rovers too, including Nissan, Northrop Grumman and Astrolab, a startup launched by former SpaceX engineers.

Details: GM's LMV shares the same Ultium battery technology underpinning its new lineup of electric vehicles, like the GMC Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyriq.

  • And its autonomous driving capability comes from GM's self-driving car unit, Cruise, which just won a robotaxi license in San Francisco.

Yes, but: The moon's extreme environmental conditions and unique physics present enormous engineering and design challenges.

  • The vehicle's batteries need to withstand a nearly 500-degree Fahrenheit temperature swing between day and night, for example.
  • And unlike carefully monitored robotaxis in San Francisco, engineers had to design driverless technology for the unmapped, unpaved terrain of the moon from a lab hundreds of thousands of miles away.
  • The lunar surface is also grittier and more abrasive than a typical off-road dirt trail, making the suspension design more challenging, GM said.

Using an advanced “driver-in-the-loop” simulator borrowed from its NASCAR racing activities, GM engineers created a virtual lunar surface, complete with craters, rocks and one-sixth Earth gravity.

  • Their first chassis design, which used the Hummer EV as a baseline, didn't move, so they softened the suspension and gave the vehicle mesh wheels.
  • But "driving on the moon is like driving on ice," Jeff Vogt, GM's advanced vehicle dynamics lead engineer, told me.
  • "We learned pretty quickly that if you accelerate too hard to climb an incline, with lower gravity, you launch into space."

My driving experience in the sim confirmed that. I never lost control of the vehicle — I was only going about 5 mph — but in low gravity, especially when I drove into the crater, it felt like I could get into trouble fast.

  • I enjoyed my trip to the moon, but when the ride ended, I was happy to set my feet back on Earth.
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