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I Drove GM's New Lunar Buggy on the 'Moon'

The Lunar Mobility Vehicle can reach a top speed of 12 mph.

While there are plenty of reasons for being jealous of astronauts -- things like free trips to space and all the freeze-dried ice cream you can eat -- I'm never more envious of our brave rocket-riding explorers than when watching footage of them hooning around on the moon buggy. That vehicle, developed in the 1960s by General Motors and deployed on three separate Apollo missions in the early '70s, was formally called the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Fifty years on, NASA's Artemis program is a new way to get humans back on the moon as soon as 2025. They'll need a new way to get around... and GM is once again building that buggy. This one's called the Lunar Mobility Vehicle, developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin, and I was recently lucky enough to drive it.

Well, I drove a simulated version of the thing.

General Motors' sprawling Milford Proving Ground sits about 45 minutes northwest of Detroit. It covers thousands of acres and offers hundreds of miles of test tracks but, crucial for this enterprise, also houses a number of massive driving simulators. These can be customized to offer any of a number of driving experiences, from droning down the highway to screaming around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

A silhouette of a driving simulator ahead of a projected image of the moon.
General Motors

With a few tweaks, these simulators can be made to replicate the moon, and that's exactly what GM engineers did. The moon offers roughly one-sixth the gravity that we experience on Earth, but there are other differences: a lack of wind resistance and a generally loose, slippery surface. 

So, what kind of vehicle did the engineers load up? Well, it's all a little bit conceptual at this point. Multiple companies are vying to get their buggies on the moon and GM is still developing its LMV concept, but the current vision looks like a lifted Japanese kei-class truck -- minus the roof. Out back there's a flat platform for hauling cargo. Upfront, a roll hoop protects a pair of seats, chairs specially designed to support astronauts and the various protrusions necessitated by their space suits. 

Powering that, GM promises, will be some variation of the Ultium battery tech that powers the Hummer EV, unsurprisingly with some significant modifications. For one thing, the LMV won't need 1,000 horsepower or 210 kilowatt-hours of battery capacity. The old rover made do with a whopping 1 hp and a roughly 9-kWh battery pack. We don't have final specs on the new LMV, but expect it to be closer to the latter than the former.

Two milky-white, 3D-printed rovers, each with big wheels and exposed roll hoops.

A pair of small, 3D-printed models of various rover concepts.

General Motors

Why no Watts to Freedom for the moon? Is GM afraid that much power will knock our biggest satellite off-axis? Actually, weight is the primary factor: The Hummer EV weighs 9,000 pounds, almost 20 times that of the old rover. Mass is the biggest penalty to getting an object into space, so every spare ounce must be pared back. 

There will also be some aspect of autonomy for the LMV, as it may actually get to the moon before people do. That also means some significant hardening will be required. The old rovers were designed to last for the mission duration (a couple of days at most) before being rendered inoperable by the freezing cold temperatures of 14-day-long lunar nights. The new LMV, on the other hand, will need to survive temperatures of minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 93.3 degrees Celsius).

Back in Milford, the driving simulator room was a little chilly (better to keep the servers operating at peak efficiency) but thankfully not cold as I strapped into the cockpit and made my way out onto the virtual lunar surface. Before embarking, I received numerous warnings about motion sickness, the low gravity of the moon apparently having sent many a test pilot staggering off in search of a vomit bag.

Two silhouetted engineers sit at a control panel overlooking a sorry soul locked in the simulator chamber.

The simulator control room in which engineers tell you exactly where you went wrong with all your decisions.

General Motors

No issues there, but it certainly did take me a few moments to get used to the delayed reactions on the moon. A little like being on ice, the car doesn't tend to respond immediately thanks to any over-aggressive driving sending it bounding into the air. The simulator did not replicate the clouds of lunar dust I was surely kicking up, but that definitely wouldn't have helped my coefficient of friction. 

The speed in the simulator is limited to about 12 mph -- hardly breakneck, but it is 50% faster than the old rover. As it turns out, that speed was more than enough to launch me over the lip of a crater and into a tumbling doom that immediately crashed the simulator. Game over. 

So, a bit of an ignominious end to my virtual lunar expedition, but I was gratified to see that I left tire tracks on the lunar surface. Moon drifting? You saw it here first.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.