By Chaitanya Giri *
In June 2021, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in collaboration with the Honda Research and Development Company, initiated an extraordinary feasibility study to build a circulating renewable energy system.
The system consists of an electrolyzer that splits water molecules to produce hydrogen for fuel use and oxygen for water regeneration, and a fuel cell to produce electricity and water. Such a system is primarily used for surface mobility on the Moon and Mars, but could also serve as life support systems for space stations and extraterrestrial bases of the future.
Toyota isn’t far behind in developing lunar-focused technologies. Since 2019, Toyota’s state-of-the-art laboratory at Toyota’s Lunar Exploration Mobility Works has been working with JAXA to build a human-friendly pressure vessel Rover that looks like a mobile infantry vehicle designed for surface mobility of humans on the moon.
These are not one-off projects, but part of Japan’s commitment to the Artemis agreements that came into force in October 2020. This non-binding political agreement led by the US and its partner countries – Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man – are a joint effort for more human presence on the moon and beyond.
As can be seen from the Japanese examples, such steps are not limited to the conventional areas of the aerospace industry. Tokyo wants its largest export, the automotive sector, to participate in the global space economy. But what are the incentives for the automotive industry to do so?
What’s in it for car?
The global automotive industry is a giant of the world economy with appendages in the oil and gas, mining, electronics, advanced materials and specialty chemicals sectors. Given the vast financial resources at its disposal, the automotive industry’s R&D performance in these areas is of vital interest to the rapidly evolving global space economy. And it’s not just limited to the Japanese.
For almost 15 years, the German automotive giant Daimler Group has had a research group dealing with the geology of the moon in its research and pre-development facility in Ulm. The researchers here have developed computer vision capabilities for surface mobility on the hilly and rocky terrain on the moon. They focused on developing systems installed on surface mobility rovers that can autonomously detect and analyze rocks and boulders on the lunar surface. Such vision-based systems should help the rover avoid collisions and navigate on non-road surfaces.
Across the Atlantic, General Motors has teamed up with US aviation company Lockheed Martin to build a lunar vehicle platform called the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV). The LTV can be the US contribution to its Artemis Agreement. Likewise, Suzuki and Audi have been considering launching their respective small – microwave-sized – moon rovers, the Hakuto and Lunar Quattro, over the past decade.
Today’s world has not wrapped itself around advertising between the automotive and aerospace industries. It is multi-faceted and exchanges several technologies and materials. The development of extraterrestrial surface mobility is one area. There are also electric batteries, hydrogen fuel technologies, computer vision – and other futuristic synergies in carbon materials, alternative energy storage systems, self-healing materials, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), in-car communication systems, and intelligent transportation systems. Many of these technologies are visible in concept vehicles, but fail to make it on the road due to various factors including cost. This is not a problem for the aerospace industry, whose business arithmetic makes these expensive but useful technologies possible.
Think about it. Two of the most prolific rocket launch companies – SpaceX and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – have automotive companies – Tesla and Mitsubishi Motors – as sister companies. It helps the holding company gain the necessary experience in both the automotive and aerospace industries and even thrive.
China is not left behind. In 2020, the Chinese Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, owners of Volvo and Geely Motors, announced their entry into the satellite manufacturing industry, offering sixth generation (6G) communications services. The Group’s satellites are initially aiming to provide Industry 4.0 services such as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-X communication and autonomous navigation that prevent accidents and offer an autonomous driving experience.
The current global automotive market, at $ 2.7 trillion, is significantly larger than the global space market at $ 550 billion. The winds of commercialization are blowing in the space sector, and even the Indian government has recognized this with the announcement of the 2020 space reform. Healthy industries – and India’s automotive sector is a star here – will take over the commercializing aerospace sector, which is being built and supported by Indian taxpayers’ money. The future development of both the automotive and aerospace industries will be much more intertwined than before.
In his most recent address to the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indian industries to increase their risk-taking and investment in research and development. He emphasized the importance of treading new and challenging routes – and connecting the aerospace and automotive industries is one such new route. While it may seem daunting at first, industry leaders will find both sectors profitable. That is, when they follow the tried and tested example of their international colleagues such as Toyota, Daimler, General Motors and others and decide to make long-term investments in research and development. The days of learning from joint ventures are long gone. Strategic purchases from overseas auto companies increased confidence in the inherent capabilities. Takeovers may go on, but there is no substitute for victory by investing in research and development in the home market, leading to globally competitive indigenization – and a real aatmanirbhar bharat.
* About the author: Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Program, Gateway House.