GM and Lockheed want to offer their Moon Buggy to commercial customers

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“New car smell and all,” Fowle promised.

The desire to sell moon cars to many different customers, however, comes with its own set of challenges. Different national space programs and for-profit companies may use different spacesuits, for example. Because of this, “universal, intuitive controls and restraint systems are needed,” the company said in an announcement posted this week on its media site. Even having enough space between seats is vital for human survival on the moon. If lunar astronauts get too comfortable, it may end up killing them.

If their two spacesuits rubbed too close together, they could rip, “which could result in life-threatening damage,” the company said.

The companies are also discussing other possible lunar vehicle variants they could work on, GM spokesman Stuart Fowle confirmed, but for now they’re just focusing on the basic moon buggy idea. He did not provide any details on the additional vehicle types being discussed.

It wouldn’t be GM’s first trip to the moon. In the 1960s, GM worked with Boeing to create the original Lunar Roving Vehicle. Three of them – LRV-1, LRV-2 and LRV-3 – were flown to the moon’s surface in 1971 and 1972. As humans have not returned since, and the first NASA astronauts have not have not brought the rovers back with them, they sit on the surface of the moon to this day.

NASA now has plans to return to the Moon. GM and Lockheed announced last year that they would design a new rover in hopes that NASA could use it for these new lunar missions. Thanks to more advanced battery technology, the new lunar rovers will be able to drive farther than the old ones, which traveled less than five miles on a charge.

The very low gravity of the moon's grainy sand creates challenges for creating a vehicle that can drive on its surface, GM engineers said.

Rovers will be important because the places scientists will want to research the moon’s surface are unlikely to be where their spacecraft will land. Good landing spots will be large, flat and featureless. As on Earth, the most geologically interesting places on the moon will be jagged, rough and rocky. Astronauts will have to travel to their lunar workplaces with all their equipment.

GM and Lockheed want the lunar rover to be able to drive autonomously. This will make it much more useful as the rover will be able to drop off cargo or astronauts at the worksites and then either leave or go to the next location, on its own.

But even that comes with challenges. The moon is not mapped in the same detail as the Earth, and nothing is paved. The fine, powdery rocks of the moon can be abrasive on a car’s structural components. And to make matters worse, GM noted that on Earth, a self-driving car with a problem can be developed and maintained by an engineer quite easily. But on the moon, “the closest engineers will be about 238,900 miles away.”

On the other hand, traffic should be lighter than on our planet, at least initially. But the companies hope that some technologies can be transferred to Earth.

“We expect manned missions to only last a week or two a year, so [autonomous driving] tech will allow us to provide services to customers the other 50 to 51 weeks,” Fowle said in an email.

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