I got to drive on the moon — kind of
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.
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.