NASA wants help designing a new lunar rover. Here’s how we’d configure it

The Artemis lunar exploration program launched by NASA in 2017 could put men and women on the moon by 2024. It’s been a while since we visited, so the agency is starting from scratch, and needs a new exploration vehicle for its astronaut. To that end, it’s asking American companies (including automakers and tech firms) to help design it.

NASA published the project’s basic guidelines on its website. It wants the next lunar rover to be electric, which goes without saying. It envisions a vehicle with a cabin that isn’t pressurized, and that humans can drive.  Because the moon doesn’t (yet) have a Department of Transportation in charge of paving roads, the rover must tackle challenging terrain. The agency predicts lessons learned from the project will benefit the auto industry.

“We want our rovers on the moon to draw on, and spur, innovations in electric vehicle energy storage and management, autonomous driving, and extreme environment resistance,” said Marshall Smith, NASA’s director of human lunar exploration programs, in a statement. That statement hints that dropping a Jeep Wrangler on a Rivian-sourced platform and strapping it to a rocket wouldn’t cut it. The rover has to be created from scratch.

Automakers are mulling over NASA’s request, but I figure, why wait? I’ve laid out how I’d configure the next lunar rover.

Give it in-wheel motors

Audi AI:Trail concept

While most current and upcoming electric vehicles use one motor per axle, some automakers — including Rivian and Lexus — are giving each wheel its own motor. I’d choose this solution for the lunar rover, because it unlocks unrivaled off-road capacity. Audi demonstrated its potential better than most when it unveiled the surprisingly moon rover-like AI:Trail concept (above) in 2019.

Four-wheel drive is mandatory to explore uncharted territory, so the rover would use four electric motors. The onboard electronics could calculate the precise amount of torque each wheel needs to get the rover through a rut, or to power it over loose terrain. If the left front and right rear wheels are stuck, for example, the remaining two can move it along, something that’s difficult to achieve (though not impossible) with a dual-motor powertrain. Plus, Rivian’s tank turn could be more than neat party trick.

Stick to lithium-ion batteries

Audi e-tron
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

The brightest minds in the automotive industry are working tirelessly to make solid-state batteries a reality. They last longer than comparable lithium-ion units, charge faster, are lighter, and won’t use flammable liquid electrolytes. Most companies agree solid-state technology will be ready for mass production by the mid-2020s, so it could power the next lunar rover. Still, I’d stick to lithium-ion.

Solid-state batteries remains are and unfamiliar, which isn’t the kind of hardware you want to put through its paces 240,000 miles away from NASA’s headquarters. Lithium-ion, on the other hand, has powered thousands of electric cars in the past decade, so its shortcomings are well-known, even to junior scientists. It’s not perfect, but engineers know how to avoid common pitfalls.

Besides, the lithium-ion battery pack has many years of life ahead of it. The lessons learned on the moon could make future electric cars even better.

Harness the power of sound

AAA’s 24-hour roadside assistance won’t get you far on the moon, so the best way to keep the rover moving is to avoid breakdowns in the first place. Bosch’s artificial intelligence-powered SoundSee robot sees sound, as its name implies, so it can detect failures and breakdowns before they happen. It’s a lunchbox-sized module that records noise, converts it into data, and analyzes it to find anomalies. It could recognize a bad bearing, for example.

As a bonus, SoundSee is already being tested in space. It’s currently traveling aboard the International Space Station, where it’s monitoring noise levels and life-support systems that absorb CO2 and recycle oxygen.

Fine-tune motion-detection technology

BMW gesture control

The next lunar rover must have some kind of infotainment system. While astronauts certainly aren’t going to stream shows on Netflix, they’ll need a way to communicate with the car and access various settings via digital menus. The easiest solution would be to incorporate touchscreen-compatible gloves into the spacesuit. They’re widely available at every outdoors store in the United States, so there’s no reason NASA can’t bag a pair and send them to the moon.

That’s not terribly innovative, though. If the goal is to move technology forward, the rover development program is the ideal platform on which to fine-tune the motion-detection technology gradually spreading across the upper echelons of the automotive industry. The BMW 7‘s gesture-controlled infotainment system is a good starting point. Astronauts would ideally perform a variety of tasks (like adjusting the ride height) using only hand motions.

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