We (Yes, That Includes You!) Need To Give The RV Industry An Electric Kick In The Pants

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I’ve written about RVs a few times on here, most recently showing some minor progress the overall industry is making. Canoo has a cool render of an electric RV, while Mercedes is going to offer the eSprinter as a cutaway van (the starting point for many RVs). While those look like promising developments, the industry is still going super slow.

Why RVs Aren’t A High Priority

Part of the challenge is the weird economic intersection RVs sit at. They need to move heavy weight around like a commercial truck or box van (and thus use a lot of fuel), but without the ability to make the money back spent on them. The Tesla Semi is a compelling option (once Tesla has the cell supply to put them into mass production) for trucking companies and owner-operators because it can save so much money.

Sure, at $150,000 for a lower range truck and $180,000 for 500 miles, the Semi is more expensive, but not by a huge margin. Driving for money, the trucking company or owner-operator makes it all back within 2 years, and then the savings are all profit. Over the course of a million miles (maybe two or three if you replace battery packs), the business case is definitely there.

If you’re buying an RV, it’s a very different situation. I see many used RVs for sale that are 20, 30, and 40 years old, and with far less than 100,000 miles on the odometer. Unlike semi-trucks and other commercial cargo vehicles, they don’t get driven until they wear out, rebuilt, and sent out for more abuse. The average RV owner works a 9 to 5 job, and takes the big, fuel-guzzling beast out on weekends occasionally, but can’t drive very far because they have to be back to work on Monday. Long trips only happen during Spring Break and Summer when the kids are out of school and the parents have some vacation days saved up.

Yes, I know the retiree situation is different, but not majorly. Some people live in their RV full time after retirement so they can see the world before their health fails too much to do it, but even then they aren’t usually road warriors. People in that situation tend to drive a few long days here and there, but they tend to spend two or more nights at an RV park or “boondocking” spot (public land that allows people to stay for cheap or free, but with no utilities) if there are any good sights to see in the area. They tend to spend even longer in one place and use it as a base camp if they have a “toad,” or a small vehicle that gets towed (get it? get it?) behind the big behemoth they live in.

Bottom line: RVs don’t drive a lot of miles, and in almost all cases nobody is paying you to do it.

The other problem is that RVs tend to spend more time away from the interstate, and that’s the first place that’s getting rapid charging. Connecting the major cities so that EVs can take road trips is good, but even in a Tesla, there are many places that an electric RV would struggle to get to without spending a night (or more) doing level 2 charging along the way.

The best of today’s electric vehicles (something you can purchase today in March 2021, not next year) for towing is the Model X, and even pulling a small trailer (around 2000 pounds) and taking it easy, getting to some rural areas is quite a challenge. Here’s my best educated guess for taking this to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon:

Not only are you spending significant time going only 45 MPH (while other drivers stuck behind you are cursing at you), but you arrive there with only 11% battery and there’s no place to charge (the RV park has no hookups, either). Unless you have a generator or think the park staff wants you to live there long term, this is a far less-than-ideal way to see one of the most beautiful sights in the United States.

On The Other Hand…

Cost savings from an electric RV are probably a lot greater than people would anticipate at first glance. First, a cross country trip would be less than half the fuel cost, and that would save hundreds of dollars at a time. Given that, people would be willing to take more long trips in them, which would compound the savings as they drove more miles. Then, when you add autonomous capabilities in the future, RVs would get driven even more (because you could sleep while they take you to the destination).

Even today, some people do use EVs to tow trailers, so it’s clearly not completely impossible. Bigger batteries would be good, but with some minor sacrifices, it’s possible to get just about anywhere even today. On the above trip, if you add 2 or 3 nights at RV parks with hookups, you can get in and out of there without needing to do anything dangerous, like go 30 MPH below the flow of traffic on narrow 2-lane roads without cell service. It’s time consuming, but makes things a lot more pleasant if you have the spare time.

Most rural RV parks can serve as Level 2 charging stations, and many RVs have a bed, kitchen, and bathroom, so waiting to charge isn’t as big of a deal as it appears at first glance. Plus, future all-in-one RVs and tow vehicles will have larger battery packs that will make these rural jaunts less problematic.

Even better, you don’t have to spend the whole trip on Level 2. Stick to DC Fast Chargers for most of the trip along interstates and only rely on RV parks for the last leg of the trip.

Getting RVs Off The Electrification Back Burner

To get people to realize that the savings allows for more fun to happen, we need to be giving the industry a kick in the pants.

First, it’s going to require that we (the enthusiasts) start taking more trips and getting the word out about what we were able to do. Today, you can find the occasional article or forum post about taking a camping trip in an EV towing a trailer, and even some videos on YouTube, but it’s still a big mystery for many people who own EVs. I’ve even seen custom electric van-based RVs, but that’s even more rare and exotic to people.

It’s expensive to get into (because the only real option today is to tow with a Model X). To overcome that, we need to be finding ways to support people in the community who are willing to do this. If you see a blog, YouTube channel, or other media with electric RVing, be sure to follow it and spread it around. We might even find people who are willing to do this a lot and crowdfund to help them pay for their rigs and custom electric RV projects.

On that last one, it’s likely that the custom projects could make the biggest difference. It was the AC Propulsion tzero car that proved the concept of lithium-ion packs, which led to the Tesla Roadster and the company that exists today. By proving that electric RVing is legitimate, we can push the whole industry in the right direction as companies start building production examples for the average person to buy.

Either way, it’s something that we all need to be making happen, because it’s probably not going to happen naturally.

Featured image: a Nissan electric RV concept that never went to production.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba