How Will Concept Cars Get Us to Mars?

Mars, The Schiaparelli Hemisphere

We are unashamedly geeks here at Berkshire Corp. We love technology, revel in innovation, and eat-drink-breathe science. We embrace our nerdy sides, and promote our dorkiness. Why? Because we believe in blue-sky projects, wild and crazy ideas that contribute to our society, shape our future, and make life just that little bit easier, more rewarding, and simply better. Oh, and because allowing our imaginations free rein makes great business sense and is just plain fun.

And where does this geekery stem from? At the risk of showing our collective age, some of us on the team remember (the much later reruns of) shows like Wacky Races and the original Batman TV series, with the late and incomparably great Adam West in the eponymous role. And what did these shows have in common? Incredibly cool technology wrapped up in blue-sky thinking. Consider, for a moment, the automobiles…

In Batman, the batmobile is arguably almost as much a character as sidekick Robin, and has undergone more changes in appearance than the Caped Crusader’s little friend ever could. In an early Detective Comics issue (#48, published in February 1941) the batmobile was a red convertible, without the now iconic bat-fins, and was based on a 1936 Cord.(1) There was no bat hood ornament or bat mask, although it did sport elegant Great Gatsby-esque running boards. Over the coming decades, the car design would change to include, and then oftentimes reject, a dome, an on-board laboratory, a smokescreen generator, gull-wing doors, and a remote driving system. Indeed, the iconic batmobile was a car of a thousand faces.

And then there were the vehicles in Wacky Races. Eleven fantastically cool racers – from the Mean Machine driven by Dick Dastardly and his canine henchman, Muttley, to Penelope Pitstop’s Compact Pussycat – the vehicles were decidedly avant-garde and off the wall. Some sported concealed weapons, James Bond-style, while others had the ability to fly. Such were the heady days of concept cars. But do concept cars belong solely in the world of Hanna-Barbera cartoons? Or is there a place for them in our ‘real’ world?

Fortunately for those of us with a passion for futurism and tech, the answer is a resounding Yes!

Concept cars are designed not only to break the rules but to reshape them.

Concept cars are designed not only to break the rules but to reshape them. To change the discourse and re-write the narrative of what is possible in automotive technology. And few do this better than the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle unveiled by NASA at the Kennedy Space Center to promote the agency’s “Summer of Mars” program. Looking like the spawn of a Russian heavy infantry fighting vehicle, the T-15 Armata, and the LeTourneau TC-497 overland train, the ‘car’ immediately conjures images of heavy militarization.(2) The blunt, heavy-browed front end is the automotive personification of a garrulous frown, backed up with the raw power of a heavily-armored, wedge-shaped chassis propped on massively outsized spherical wheels. Measuring in at 28 feet nose to tail, the designers – Parker Brothers Concepts based out of Port Canaveral, FL – claim it could reach between 60 and 70 miles per hour. We have to assume that they mean Earth hours…

The project is a collaboration between the Parker Brothers – famed for producing some out-there designs even by the most futuristic thinking – and companies such as 9Mile Media, Wacom, Sea Dek, and 3M. The brothers, Shanon and Marc Parker, cut their design teeth by creating real-world versions of the light cycle from Walt Disney Pictures’ Tron, one of which was purchased by actor-rapper 50 Cent. They also later provided the vision for a Tumbler replica based on the batmobile in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 movie, Batman Begins.(3)

But in terms of capturing the public’s imagination, the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle does take some beating. Interestingly, in its current incarnation – a far cry from one of the earlier NASA prototypes which was described as a ‘colossal grasshopper corpse re-animated as a cyborg’ – the vehicle is actually not ideally suited to exploration of the Red Planet.(4) In fact, in an analysis written by Jason Torchinsky of Jalopnik, a ‘news and opinion website about cars, the automotive industry […] and much more’, it is slammed as a craft that ‘makes absolutely no sense.’(5) And in many ways this criticism is valid. Its intimidating body shape, while aerodynamic here on Earth, would not confer benefits on Mars, which has only 0.6% of Earth’s sea level atmospheric density. So the rover doesn’t need to be aerodynamic. Instead, the sloped front end would have been better constructed in a box shape to maximize interior space. But it does boast the kinds of design elements that we would expect for surviving the unforgiving Martian terrain: rugged sturdiness, plentiful ground clearance for getting across rock-fields, solar panels to power the (presumed) electric drivetrain, and airless, heavy-duty wheels. And this is the real purpose of this concept vehicle: not to navigate its way across extra-terrestrial landscapes, but to forge new pathways in the human imagination. To act as a vanguard in creating public interest and excitement for NASA’s on-going commitment to space exploration. And to ensure that present and future programs receive the popular support they need to move forward.

… NASA’s concept car makes all the sense in the world.

But amazing as it is, the Mars 2020 Rover is not the only concept car out there.(6) Leading the field in wildly innovative but sustainable technology is a Swiss design, the Oasis. Developed by Frank M. Rinderknecht, the Rinspeed vehicle is a nifty, nippy little set of wheels for zipping around-town. Resembling an elongated Smart car, the Oasis is a reaction against the notion of an ‘urban jungle that requires SUVs the size of battle tanks for the daily struggle for survival.’(7) Presented at the Geneva Motor Show 2017, the Oasis is a self-driving (we assume this means semi-autonomous) electric vehicle with a lightweight design. Incorporating aluminum and synthetic textiles, the interior offers all the comforts of home with features such as armchairs and a TV. The ‘living room ambiance’ offers the driver (rider?) a welcoming embrace while the Harman LIVS technologies (Life-Enhancing Intelligent Vehicle Solutions) deals with those pesky problems like avoiding traffic stalls and seeking alternative routes during rush hour.

And it is not intended as just another compact car; an additional competitor in the already bloating sustainable vehicle market. Instead, Rinspeed CEO, Rinderknecht, conceived of his automobile as a literal vehicle that will assist us in bringing out our best selves. Our most social, generous, perhaps even altruistic selves. If, as he says, we are ‘willing to share goods in a beneficial way […] the Oasis can be a shopping cart in the morning, a shipping services counter in the afternoon, and a pizza delivery vehicle at night.’ But that does assume that we are able to take that leap of faith and share nicely.

Hand holding a Bonsai tree

But it might be a leap worth taking. One of the other quirky but potentially useful features that must be unique to the Oasis is the incorporation not only of office features – a steering wheel that folds flat into a desk and Skype-enabled Office productivity software – that transform it into a semi-autonomous office on wheels, but also a micro garden, growing fruit, vegetables, or even Bonsai. While we are unsure how the cultivation of radishes fits into the business model of the car, we can only applaud the ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that led to this development. And a tip of the hat to the brave team leader who signed off on the project.

And while all of this is fun, creative, and thought-provoking, there is a huge degree of seriousness residing just below the surface. Concept vehicles exist to fire imagination and spark progress, and the Mars 2020 Rover is a project that fully embraces that mandate. The vehicle that touches down in that famous red dust will be a true workhorse, optimized for searching the surface of the planet, collecting samples, and analyzing the soil and rock debris for signs of past – or perhaps even present – microbial life. Its internal instrumentation will be guided by a core mission whose objectives are to study geology, astrobiology, to cache samples, and to prepare for eventual colonization. In seeing the planet as a potential future habitat for mankind, we have a searing need to understand the processes that shaped its development, including the geological record and diversity. We also have a responsibility to search for ‘materials with high biosignature preservation potential’ – perhaps rocks that formed in water and which still contain traces of organic materials – and to determine from them whether we are seeing signs of past life upon the planet.(8) A key task in understanding both of these areas is the collection and analysis of surface materials, documenting what we find and understanding how it fits into the geologic diversity of the sampled site. And finally, there are Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) to fill: Do we have adequate In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies to produce breathable air? Is surface pollution (dust et cetera) hazardous to our health? And even, can we survive Martian weather?

It will take a craft of unprecedented sophistication, the very apotheosis of our innovation and technological accomplishment, to undergo this mission. And it will have been built in a cleanroom.

Just like the rovers that preceded it – Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – the Mars 2020 Rover (a machine currently devoid of an inspirational name, it seems) will be born within a contamination-controlled environment.(9) NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, the locus of the earlier construction of Curiosity upon which the Rover 2020’s design is in part based, boasts not one but two monster-sized cleanrooms. As we noted in an earlier article, ‘CubeSats? – In Space Exploration, Less Just May Be More’, these sterile cleanrooms come with all necessary equipment and bunny-suited personnel to support the construction of the kinds of vehicles that ultimately find themselves deployed on another world. With an eye to protecting the integrity of the components – delicate sensors that can be compromised by particulate matter, for example – the facilities enjoy isolated electrical circuits, electrostatic discharge flooring (ESD), cryogen ventilation systems, and all of the necessary tools and accouterments for keeping the area hyper clean. And with a wider view – to protecting the Martian environment from Earth-based pollution – the use of an aseptic manufacturing environment is critical to ensuring that our research does not result in inter-planetary cross-contamination by any terrestrial sources. Whether this be simple dust, or DNA, pathogens, or fungal spores, bacteria, or microbes, it is of mission-critical importance that absolute safeguards are in place to avoid deep space hitch-hikers, because without these safeguards, the potential for contamination is very real. The rover incorporates, for example, penetrative technology – a rotary percussive coring drill to burrow around two inches into rock and collect samples that must be untainted by terrestrial contaminants. It will also carry sterile supplies – tubes, for instance, into which it will place and hermetically seal each sample before depot caching them in strategic locations for retrieval and transport to Earth by future missions. Given the scope of the challenge to land the craft upon the Martian surface, even the notion of allowing human-generated contamination is beyond horrifying.

The 2020 Rover has a simultaneously fantastically complex and deceivingly simple mission: to reach Mars, take descent photos, and – over the course of one Martian year (687 Earth days) – explore and sample the terrain. It will send back data that will feed a new understanding of our neighboring world, and will leave behind a cache of research goodies for future missions. And, thanks to excellence in cleanroom technology, that is all it will leave behind.

What do you think of the Mars 2020 Rover project? Is Mars a barren planet or do you hope we will find evidence of past – or present! – microbial life? We’d love to know your thoughts – please share them in the comments!


  5. ibid