A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about a very cool project that Dutch students built. Instead of building their usual solar racecars, they built a solar-powered RV, and then they took it on a tour across Europe. To many readers, this might seem like a silly and impractical student project like many solar-electric vehicles, but there’s real potential for this kind of vehicle to help with real-world problems with further development.
Let’s face it, travel is expensive. If you fly, you pay hundreds per person for most flights, and then you pay hundreds again to go home. While you’re there, you pay for hotels, restaurants, and many other things you can do cheaper at home. Even if you skip the plane, you still pay big bucks. Trains are expensive. Even buses aren’t very cheap (and the bus experience generally isn’t great in the United States). Even if you drive yourself, you’re still paying for gas or charging, more nights of hotels along the way, and more meals that cost a lot more than eating at home.
Even people with decent income tend to take a nice, relaxing trip only once or twice a year. People struggling for money might only go on a vacation every few years. People in really bad shape just never leave town at all.
There’s a couple in my neighborhood who are in that last category (really bad shape financially). They don’t think we notice, but they have a rotation of places they park their RV. Some days, they’re parked behind the McDonald’s. Other days, they’re parked by some park or other. Other days, they’re in the Walmart parking lot. Even they don’t get to travel much, because just driving to the next small town costs $50 in fuel, and the RV’s engine seems to be pretty iffy.
I’ll get back to this couple later in this article, but it shows that even if your home is on wheels, and you can cook your food stamp food on the road, you’ve still gotta pay big money to travel. There’s just no avoiding the costs.
But what if you had an RV that needs no fuel and only minimal maintenance? What if it had a place to sleep, a place to cook, and a place to shower? You were already going to eat at home anyway, so your travel costs would be pretty close to nothing. The only cost would be paying for the vehicle, but if you also used it locally for driving, it could replace a car payment you were already into, so you wouldn’t be any worse off there, either.
Obviously, even avoidable costs are sometimes preferable. If you really want to be fancy, or if you’re in a city where camping in parking lots isn’t allowed, you might have to pay $50 a night for space in an RV park, but that’s fairly easy to avoid if you know where to look for alternatives. If you don’t wish to laze across the country over weeks, you may also wish to fast-charge the vehicle (relying on solar would probably mean only taking short hops every day, or waiting a few days to charge it from empty to full).
But then again, businesses looking to attract travelers might offer free charging and/or space to sleep for the night just as they do now for RV travelers.
With costs much lower, travel could become a lot more popular. This could revitalize many rural economies, especially those near attractions. It could even help revive many abandoned roadside businesses between small towns, as more places would be needed to stop, especially for people trying to avoid charging.
Some People Might Never Come Back (& That’s Not A Bad Thing)
During the pandemic, remote work became a lot more common. Lockdowns and other heavy restrictions made normal office culture, with its cubicles, pointless meetings, etc., not only a bad idea, but often illegal under state emergency proclamations, so workers were able to go remote and work from home. Many workers took advantage of the opportunity and moved onto the road. Even one of my daughter’s teachers could be seen at a different location every week during Zoom classes.
But, with workplaces opening back up, many people don’t want to go back to office life. With internet connections a lot more widely available than they used to be, people who have been enjoying life on the road while still working just don’t see any reason to go back. Some employers are demanding that people come home to the office, but other companies are allowing hybrid and even full-time remote work on a permanent basis.
For both employers and employees, this makes a lot of sense when it’s possible. Both can save money on rent and utilities for office and home space when the employee doesn’t need to be in one place all the time.
For cities and towns where rent is affordable, living in an RV doesn’t give a huge advantage, but in coastal cities that are short on housing, RVs and converted vans give workers a way to save on housing costs and live right next to their job. For companies like Google that provide 24/7 access to buildings with showers, laundry rooms, and free food, it’s a no-brainer for many people to live in the parking lot, and the company quietly allows it if you work there. Some employees have saved enough money to buy a house outright. One company even rents vans for people to live in on Google’s campus for $30 a night.
There is, of course, a dystopian side to this phenomenon that must be managed. High income workers with supportive employers aren’t usually pushed out of the housing market, but many people have an RV as their only option that doesn’t involve sleeping on concrete. Instead of addressing housing issues, many California cities want to ban living in a vehicle or RV within city limits, as if that will make the problem go away.
Solar-powered electric RVs could be a big part of the solution to this. Instead of living in a vehicle with only basic lighting and propane heat, a solar RV could theoretically also have air conditioning, power for appliances, and not use any fossil fuels or emit exhaust in the city. This would make “van life” more palatable for both the people living in vehicles and the cities they’re living in.
For employers offering hybrid work, a solar-powered RV could allow employees the freedom to be at the office and out on the road without having to pay both rent and a payment for an RV. As long as there’s an internet connection, someone with a solar RV could spend days or weeks at a time in deep rural areas to enjoy the scenery and improve mental health.
With workers regularly spending time out of cities, the housing crises could be relieved a bit, too, allowing non-remote workers and people who don’t want to be nomadic to have more affordable housing.
Cities and employers should do what they can to support this. Offering RV hook-ups in employee parking lots would be a lot easier if they don’t need to provide electricity. Cities should also not try to interfere with businesses who want to allow RV parking on their parking lots. Doing both of these things could go a long way to helping people in coastal cities.
Featured image and other images of Stella Vita by Bart van Overbeeke and Solar Team Eindhoven.
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