Could Elon Musk’s Vision of Driving a Tesla on Mars become a Reality?

As you may already know, Elon Musk is the CEO of two large companies: SpaceX and Tesla. SpaceX is looking to get humans off the planet and onto Mars. Although they currently offer a satellite launch service and are soon to become an ISP with their Starlink project, SpaceX has the final goal of making humans a multi planetary species.

rocket ship launching during daytime
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SpaceX Falcon Heavy

Meanwhile, Tesla has the aim of accelerating the global adoption of sustainable energy and transportation, specifically in the form of solar panels and electric cars. Essentially, Tesla is aiming to save the planet.

Tesla next generation 2020 Roadster
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Tesla Next Generation 2020 Roadster

Meanwhile, SpaceX is looking to get humans off the planet. Although they currently offer a satellite launch service and are soon to become an ISP with their Starlink project, SpaceX has the final goal of making humans a multi planetary species.

You may think that the two company aims collide as one seeks to save the planet, whilst the other simply aims to leave it. However, in reality, Tesla acts more as a short term fix, whilst SpaceX handles the ‘what if a super-volcano erupts or a massive asteroid strikes scenario.

On the surface, this looks like the full picture. That being said, I have a feeling that Musk would be looking to use some of Tesla’s technology either in SpaceX rockets, or as part of a Martian transportation system.

That begs the questions, could Tesla’s be part of a future Martian transportation system?

Mars: A Clean Slate

When humanity plans to build a colony on Mars, there are a vast number of considerations to be made. For example, house design, life support systems, and energy generation. In addition to all that, one thing we can learn from what we have done on earth is about transportation.

On earth, transportation is a jumbled mess. That’s because transportation has evolved faster than cities, meaning nobody had time to future proof the cities for modern forms of transportation. As a result, transport systems are jammed in wherever possible, creating clogged up road networks and twisting railway lines.

This is what the wind sounds like on Mars
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Artists Rendition of The Red Planet

With Mars, there needs to be a general transportation consensus. Are we going to stick with cars, trains, planes, or another form of transportation?

One idea could be to use cars to travel from place to place, but then use a more efficient train system within dense cities. This would alleviate the issue of congestion, whilst still allowing people to travel to wherever the roads can take them.

Ok, so supposing we stick with this idea, how could Elon Musk and Tesla fit into this?

Inner-City Transportation

Within the city, cars are far too inefficient. They take up far too much space for the amount of people they carry. Moreover, they aren’t particularly energy efficient.

Elon Musk’s solution to this is based around underground tunnels. In a system he calls the ‘loop’, passenger pods ferry people around underground to various locations around a city. It’s designed on a principle that Musk talks about a lot and it goes like this:

Generally, most people finish work in their tall buildings at the same time (around 5PM-7PM). When they leave these tall buildings, which are very much 3D, often being taller than they are wide, they all condense onto the road surface and get in their cars. Now, all those people that were in 3D space are now on the road level, essentially a 2D plane. That’s why there’s congestion.

Hence, we need a transportation system that is 3D. That either means going up with flying cars, or down underground with tunnels.

Musk decided on the tunnel option; his loop system would include multiple layers of tunnels that efficiently transport people around the city, without there being any noise on the surface. That’s right, no frustrated horns, no air pollution, and no unsightly metal boxes moving around the cities.

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Boring Company Boring Machine

On Mars, cities could be build based on this concept. Dig many layers of tunnels, future proofing the city before its even built.

Ok, that’s the inner-city transportation network sorted, now time to move on to the outer-city transportation network.

Out of City Transportation

When designing an out of city transportation system, it’s quite difficult to hit all the objectives. The system needs to be efficient and fast, but it also needs to get people to exactly where they want to be.

Hence, the use of trains alone is not enough. Yes, they are fast and efficient, but they can only get people to specific stations. There would have to be a vast train network to get everyone within walking distance of where they wanted to be.

Another system would be electric planes. These would be capable of handling short distance flights efficiently, but having thousands of small planes in the air all going different directions would take quite some coordination.

Aero Mobils flying car. A recent development.
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AeroMobil Flying Car Concept

One of the best options that allows people to go exactly where they want to would be cars. However, with humans at the wheel, cars aren’t particularly efficient; humans are just too unpredictable. To improve on this, cars could be autonomous, which is a technology that Tesla is currently working on. Not only that, but the cars would most likely be electric by then, although emitting CO2 into the Martian atmosphere wouldn’t be a particularly bad idea for warming it.

However, would Tesla cars in their current form be capable of travelling on Mars?

Radiation

Unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetosphere. As a result, the atmosphere which Mars once had has been stripped away by the solar wind.

Originally, the atmosphere protected mars from the harsh cosmic radiation from the sun. Now, Mars is blasted with radiation, that is not only harmful to humans, but also computer systems.

We can see the effects of solar radiation on the moon. Many layers of moon dust below the surface are radioactive; if some gets on an astronauts skin, it contaminates it.

Once the radioactive substance is on the skin, it can go on to mutate cells, potentially causing cancer. Hence, astronauts have to wear radiation shielding spacesuits.

Unfortunately, the challenges of battling radiation aren’t just directed towards our bodies. Computers have problems too.

When a high energy photon strikes a processor, it can cause a bit flip. Essentially, this changes one of the bits (0 or 1) to the opposite. For example, if a processor is asked to calculate 10 + 10, this would be (1010 + 1010 = 10100) in binary. However, if one of the bits flips, 10+10 would become (1010 + 1110 = 11000). Now the computer is saying 10 + 10 = 24. As you can imagine, this can completely mess up several complex calculations.

In SpaceX rockets, they opted to equip each Dragon capsule with two redundant chips, each with 2 cores inside. Each core compares its result of the calculation with the other core, then if that result is the same it is compared with the other computers. If a bit flip is detected, the computer is rebooted.

To use a Tesla on Mars, this kind of thing could be used in a Tesla. This would mean that if a bit flip took place whilst the car was moving, it would be dramatically less likely to cause a crash. As an alternative to redundancy, Tesla could use radiation hardened components to protect their equipment from incoming radiation.

Martian Dust

Due to the lack of water on Mars, the surface of the planet is largely dry. Consequently, there’s frequently dust floating around, especially when there’s a dust storm. For human made structures, Martian dust can be quite an issue; the particles are slightly electrostatic and very fine. Not only do they stick to things, but they are also prone to getting stuck in small corners and crevices. This is the reason that solar panels on the red planet have to be cleaned so frequently.

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Curiosity Rover image of a dust storm on Mars

Fortunately, electric cars have fewer moving parts than internal combustion engine vehicles. As a result, there’s a smaller probability that the dust will get inside some of the parts and cause resistance. Despite this, a thick coating of dust around the battery would significantly reduce its ability to lose heat. This could lead to overheating and a likely decrease in range.

Temperature

This would be the largest concern for any vehicle of any kind. Due to Mars’ lack of atmosphere, it doesn’t retain heat very well. When the sun is shining on a summers day, it’s warm (about 20˚C on the equator). But don’t be fooled; on a winters day, the temperature can plummet to -120˚C at the poles.

Neither internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles or electric vehicles can function under these temperatures. An ICE car wouldn’t be able to start, whilst the battery management system inside a Tesla would be drawing enormous amounts of power and would have to be left plugged in almost constantly. Furthermore, the range of both types of vehicles would significantly decrease.

Conclusion – Tesla’s on Mars?

With today’s technology, a Tesla vehicle would not be capable of driving on Mars, at least for any sustained period of time. The vehicle would have to be heavily adapted to make it functional.

Adding to this, extra hardware would be required to protect the car from radiation and dust. That being said, if cars can travel in tunnels, they could be much protected from these two problems, whilst the tunnels would be a more constant localised temperature.

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