Nissan looks to the stars

Nissan has lost the plot and built a car nobody will ever drive, and it’s unbelievably cool. It’s only gone and built a moon buggy!

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is conducting research on lunar rovers, a key technology for future space exploration. A lunar rover must be able to traverse the Moon's powdery, rocky, and undulating terrain, and at the same time be incredibly energy efficient.

Scientists and engineers need to be confident that future rovers are actually capable of traversing the lunar surface. When it’s operating a few hundred thousand miles away, getting out and giving it a push isn’t really an option. It has to be robust, reliable, and it’s got to be as sure-footed as a mountain goat. And if that’s not complicated enough, it has to do all of that using as little power as possible. A huge battery would give it plenty of driving range, but that’s no good when it’s got to be light enough to get into space in the first place. Saving weight means smaller batteries, and that means the rover needs to eke out its limited power ultra efficiently.

Nissan is only one of many companies JAXA has been working with. JAXA Director of the Space Exploration Innovation Hub Centre, Ikkoh Funaki describes the research: "JAXA aims to apply the research results to future space exploration. We are collaborating with companies, universities and research institutes on projects that are feasible and have potential for commercialisation and innovation. By conducting research with Nissan, which has expertise in electrified technologies, we hope to apply our findings to the development of higher-performance lunar rovers."

Nissan has only been working on the rovers since January 2020, so it clearly didn’t take long for this particular collaboration to pay off.

Using Nissan expertise in the moon buggy

Nissan's contribution was two-fold. Applying the technology developed for mass-market electric vehicles like the Leaf helped to maximise battery power on the lunar rover. Possibly even more important though, the e-4ORCE all-wheel control technology that features on the upcoming Nissan Ariya electric crossover significantly boosted the lunar rover's performance over tricky terrain.

In its joint research with JAXA, Nissan adapted the e-4ORCE technology to improve its performance in sandy terrain and other harsh conditions. When cars are driven in sand their wheels can spin and dig in, and it takes a fair amount of skill and experience to avoid getting stuck. A lunar rover won’t have an experienced off-road driver, so it needs to be able to adapt to the terrain on its own. To meet this need, Nissan has developed driving-force controls that minimise the amount of wheel spin in accordance with surface conditions, ensuring that the rover doesn’t dig itself into a hole it can’t get out of again.

Nissan's e-4ORCE technology precisely controls all four wheels independently and is equipped with front and rear electric motors. The torque of each motor can be individually controlled to provide smooth acceleration and maximum traction across difficult terrain. When decelerating it can maximise power regeneration by individually adjusting the front and rear motors. Under braking, the e-4ORCE system spreads the load to minimise sudden shifts in weight and body shake that can destabilise it. As it changes direction, the torque of the front and rear motors and the braking performance of the four wheels are controlled to ensure smooth and stable cornering under many different conditions.

All of which is useful to know next time you hear someone moaning about space exploration being a complete waste of money.

All of that clever, all-wheel drive, super-stable, super-efficient space technology that allows a lunar rover the opportunity to broaden the human understanding of the universe…. every single bit of it is taken straight from the all-electric Nissan Ariya crossover SUV that goes on sale in a few months’ time.

You may not be able to drive a moon buggy, but that same clever drive system developed by Nissan to drive across the lunar surface will also make sure you don’t get stuck on the beach next time you go for a picnic.

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