NASA's job is to build spacecraft. They're pretty good at it, too. NASA's job is also to try and adapt some of those space technologies in ways that people who aren't astronauts can take advantage of back home on Earth. Every once in a while, we get to see what happens when NASA takes a crack at spinning off its own technology, and that's exactly what the Modular Robotic Vehicle is: an adaptation of exploration rover mobility and control systems into a nimble little urban car.
The MRV can do what it does thanks to a set of four independently actuated wheels, each with its own steering system and liquid cooled motor. These hybrid steering and propulsion modules are called e-corners, and their ability to rotate ±180 degrees gives the MRV some remarkable agility:
If you watch closely at about 1:20 in the video, you can see how the control system works. There’s a conventional steering wheel and pedals and all the other stuff you’d expect to find in a regular car, but there’s also a little multi-axis joystick sitting in the center console that “drifts,” or translates, the vehicle, while also rotating it. By using the steering wheel along with the joystick, the MRV can dynamically maneuver in any direction. Basically, it’s a hovercraft on wheels.
This isn’t NASA’s first foray into vehicles like this: its Space Exploration Vehicle (also known as the Lunar Electric Rover) uses a very similar system, albeit with more wheels, and designed for stately offroad maneuverability rather than urban speed:
And on a much smaller scale, NASA’s Mars rovers have been using this technology since Sojourner.
The MRV has obvious practical applications in space, but is it realistic to expect that here on Earth, we might be able to take advantage of vehicles like this? It’s probably too much to hope for that NASA would start opening up car dealerships (although I’d be first in line if they did). More likely we’ll start seeing some of the technologies that the MRV embodies trickling down into commercial use.
For example, everything on the MRV is controlled electronically. From brakes to steering, there are no mechanical linkages between the input system that the driver uses and the actuators that control the vehicle. The challenge here isn’t to get this to work, but to get it to work safely and reliably, because if you have a sensor failure or software freakout, all of a sudden your steering wheel stops functioning. The MRV employs completely redundant sensors and computers, so that if any one component fails, the vehicle can seamlessly switch to a backup with no loss of control.
A nice perk of having a controls that are completely electronic is that it makes it relatively simple to turn the vehicle into a robot, whether you’re going for remote control, assistive autonomy, or full autonomy. From what we can tell, the MRV doesn’t have the sensors or programming required to make it autonomous, but seeing it zip around with nobody in the driver’s seat is pretty cool.
With a top speed of 70 kph, and an all-electric range of 100 km, the MRV seems like it would make for a practical urban vehicle nearly as-is. As much fun as it would be to have one of these in your driveway, our guess is that it's only likely to happen if your driveway is on Mars.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.