I'm pretty sure we're going to have a Mars colony one day. In fact, my retirement plans kind of hinge on it. I'm not so deluded that I think I'll be able to ship my beloved Beetle and Scimitar over with me, so I'm going to have to pick up a new car when I get to Mars.
I did a bit of research into what resources Mars has to offer, and what a relatively fledgling colony may be able to handle. This data, plus a healthy amount of dreamy speculation, led me to the design I'm presenting here. The process of thinking this through reveals a lot about what early life on Mars will be like.
And a good part of that life will be converting our poop into plastic.
I suspect that I won't be the only geezer in the New Los Angeles colony (in LOLCat County) on Mars that wants a car, so it's lucky that I firmly believe we'll be able to manufacture cars on the Red Planet. The cars that we'll make, at least at first, will be pretty different than what we're used to, but I think they'll be well suited to the Martian environment and our still-infant colony.
It's going to be really expensive to send things to Mars for the foreseeable future. That's why I don't think just putting together CKD kits of 2068 Ford New Pintos is going to work. The cars have to be made using as much indigenous Martian resources as possible. Fortunately, Mars has a great deal to offer metallurgically, including nickel, iron, aluminum, titanium, lithium, cobalt, copper, zinc, and more. Iron is by far the most common, as it even gives Mars its distinctive red color via the ore hematite. There's already been people figuring out how to make steel on Mars, and I think it's reasonable to think that the production of useful metals will be an early goal of a Martian colony.
These metals will be used to make the car's chassis, the electric motor components, wiring, and the body— which in this case will need to be pressurized, since I don't think we're going to get Mars terraformed until way down the road.
Fuel is going to be key. There's no known oil on Mars (I'm guessing we'd have colonies there already if there were) and the rovers we've sent over so far have used either solar power or nuclear-thermal generators. Both are reasonable options, but I think for the most power-to-money ratio, methane is the winner. NASA has been investigating what they call "In-Situ" propellant manufacturing, and have developed methods to make methane and liquid oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. NASA would use this as rocket fuel; my hypothetical automobile plant will use the methane to power fuel cells.
A number of researchers have developed fuel cells that use methane instead of hydrogen to generate electricity— Portland is even powering a waste treatment plant with methane fuel cells. So, I think the Mars-built cars will use electric motors, powered by methane fuel cells.
So we've got metals for chassis and body construction, a plan for fuel and propulsion, which means now we need stuff to make everything else. Controls, seats, wire insulation, dash knobs — all that crap. Here on earth, these things are often made of plastics. On Mars, there's no ready source of petroleum for plastic manufacture, so we've got to think of something else. Again, we're in luck, because someone's already thought this out. How to make plastics from a resource any human colony will have in abundance: shit.
Well, specifically, sewage, but you get the idea. For the Jalopnik Martian Motor Industries plant, I'm going to specify that the plastic is just made into giant spools of tubular plastic, because I'm planning on doing all plastic part manufacturing via rapid prototyping machines. That way, we can keep inventory low and make almost everything on-demand, as needed. Plus, if we give you all kinds of fun options for your seats and dashboard, maybe you'll forget your shift knob was once someone's burrito turd.
That covers the material side of things, so let's figure out design. I think modularity is going to be key. Living on Mars will be hard enough, let alone running a car company, so we're going to want to simplify as much as possible. That means one basic, very modular platform with a number of interchangeable bodies.
For the platform, I'm going to steal GM's novel Hy-Wire idea. Essentially, the concept was to make a sort of "skateboard" that housed the car's drivetrain, suspension, and all major systems, while providing hard points to mount a variety of body styles. Our Mars Car concept will be very similar, but with the major difference being that it will use methane fuel cells for power.
Here's what I'm thinking:
The hub-mounted electric wheel motors have been proven on every Mars rover to date. Mars' gravity is 38% of Earth's so we can get by with much less power. I think if each motor can produce between 10-20 HP, for a total of 40-80 HP, that would be more than enough power for most applications. The motor/wheel design can be cribbed straight from rovers like Curiosity, with a mostly hollow metal tweel housing the motor within. This design also provides full-time 4WD, useful since not many roads are likely to be paved.
The heaviest parts, the fuel cells, are housed centrally. The chassis has integrated crash protection front and rear, and there are several mechanical hard points to mount the body, as well as electronic connections for the fly-by-wire systems.
The bodies available for the cars will likely have one common form: a cylinder. Since the cars will need to be pressurized with breathable atmosphere, the easiest and most common pressurized vehicle form to build is a cylinder. If you don't believe me, look at every habitable module on the ISS. I think cylinder bodies would be available in configurable modules: two and four passenger modules, windowless pressurized cargo modules, open pickup beds, people mover multi-seat modules, or various combinations of the above. A basic chassis could accomodate two or three standard modules. A possible shorter chassis that could mount one module for small personal transport may be worth considering as well.
There could even be a special racing module kit, with a small one-person module and a nice big wing or something. Because, let's face it, it's going to be boring out there unless we can make some red-rock tracks and have some fun.
The modules would need a universal docking port, so you could enter your destination without a space suit or funeral, as well, though some buildings may be constructed with pressurized garages, so the modules could have conventional doors as well.
To keep manufacturing as simple as possible, I think instrumentation and any on-board computers needed would be handled by whatever equivalent of smartphones we'll have then. In fact, that's what your key will be; your phone will have an app for your car that unlocks it and, when placed in a dashboard dock, gives you your instruments, nav, music, whatever. Current iPhones and Androids could do this today, so I'm pretty sure by the time we get to Mars whatever computers we're all still carrying in our space-pockets will do the trick. Those will likely be Earth imports, at least at first.
These early Mars vehicles won't be particularly sleek or elegant, but I think they're a good answer to the unique challenges Mars will throw at future colonists. Eventually, manufacturing will grow more complex and robust, and there will be flowing, elegant Marsmobiles to rival anything Earth puts out. Which just means these first Mars-built machines will be collectors' items.
So I say order yours now. It's the smart thing to do. Just make checks out to me and I'll put you on the big list for the first batch of cars. Oh, and don't forget to specify which model you want! I'll space-text you when we're on Mars and your car is ready.