It's an exciting time for road vehicle design and technology. That goes for recreational vehicles too. One way to predict the future direction of RVs is to look to the past.
Paradoxically, it seems to me, the RV historian is in a good position to speculate about the RV of the future. Exploring how RVs have developed over the last 100 years or so gives some useful clues as to how they might change in the years to come.
So here's one RV historian's 2023 view of the future of the RV.
Nothing in the RV World is New
The final chapter of my 2014 book The Caravan Buyers Guide was called 'The Caravan of the Future'. It featured a New Zealand-designed caravan under development at the time called The Romotow, shown above. Its unique, penknife-like swiveling chassis was streamlined, space-saving and sexy. Nearly a decade later the Romotow is now available for sale at a hefty price of over half a million New Zealand dollars in its most luxurious form. It recently featured as one of Time Magazine's best inventions of 2023. The weight of all this technology and luxury is 7,495 pounds (3,400 kg) for the Romotow T8, which is probably why its owners suggest it may better suited for use as a semi-static vacation rental home than as a roaming travel trailer.
One lesson you soon learn from RV history is that nothing in the RV world is new. The photo above shows an unnamed inventor from the UK demonstrating a model of a pivoting caravan in 1939. There are no records of this caravan going into production, probably due to its complexity, but I wonder if Romotow is aware that the pivoting trailer idea is about 80 years old?
Aspirational RVs are Important
RV history shows too that, despite its weight and cost, we need products like the Romotow. Just as Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and the like provide aspirational products in the automobile market, the Romotow demonstrates what can be achieved with RV design when thinking (literally in this case) outside of the box. Classic RVs such as the Curtiss Aerocar and the Airstream filled similar aspirational roles in the mid-twentieth century, with much of their design and technology filtering down later to mass-market RVs for the benefit of the many.
Followers not Leaders
Throughout history, investment in RV design and technology has lagged other forms of road transport for one main reason. RVs are niche vehicles and are given a low investment priority by vehicle manufacturers compared to the much larger (and more profitable) passenger and goods vehicle markets. That has meant that RV builders have had to adapt vehicles for RV use that were originally built for other purposes. Even today many motorhomes are converted goods delivery vans.
Not only are RVs niche, there also have many sub-niches. RVs come in many shapes and sizes, further splintering an already small market into dozens of RV sub-designs. Let's not forget too that RVs are largely unseen on the roads of many densely-populated countries such as China and India as well as large parts of South-East Asia and Africa. These countries currently have no RV culture to speak of (but for how long?), and yet are still major markets for passenger and goods vehicles. So with the exception of the USA, some European countries and Australia and New Zealand, the manufacture and sale of RVs is effectively a cottage industry that has to wait for innovation to filter down from elsewhere.
The relatively small and segmented nature of the RV industry makes its future hard to predict. For example, will the RV of the future be one box on wheels (i.e. the motorhome) or two (the caravan or travel trailer)? Or will these two main RV forms continue to co-exist as they have done for the last 100 years? Let's speculate a little.
Electric RVs are the Future
Unless there is a major breakthrough soon with hydrogen, battery-powered vehicles seem to offer the most viable, non-polluting future for all main forms of road transport. In the late nineteenth century when the future propulsion method of automobiles was unclear, inventors were hedging their bets on power sources in a similar way. Henry Lawson of the UK, for example, suggested that his 1896 "Automotive House", perhaps the first-ever documented 'motorhome', could be powered not only by horses but also "steam, oil, electric or other". Electric vehicles became a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel in the early twentieth century and many thousands were manufactured.
But electrification presents a significant challenge to the RV of the future. This is due in the main to the RV's main handicap – weight. Weight and aerodynamic inefficiency are the enemies of the EV, since towing a brick reduces range. The research carried out by RV journalist Andrew Ditton shows that towing even a lightweight Adria caravan with a current production EV roughly halves its range. One of his videos on this subject is below:
There is no doubt that RV range anxiety will become less of an issue as battery efficiency increases, EV range grows and the towed form of RV becomes lighter. But as long as consumers continue to demand that RVs include every home convenience including the kitchen sink, they will always act as a drag on an electric tow vehicle. Many 'off road' RVs in Australia slowly but surely sink into the sand dunes as their owners fill their 'go anywhere' vehicles with heavyweight gear. How is a heavy, electric RV going to travel more than a few dozen miles without the need for frequent recharges? Clearly the RV of the future will need a complete rethink.
Four Design Paths
There are currently four overlapping strands of thinking as to how the RV of the future may develop:
The Shrinking RV. Redesign of (unpowered) travel trailers/caravans to make them smaller, more streamlined and lighter so that they can be towed more easily by EVs, while waiting for EV batteries to become more powerful
The Electrified RV. Replacing all fossil-fuel appliances in an RV with electric appliance powered by onboard batteries
The Power-Boosted RV. Giving trailers/caravans axle-driving batteries and electric motors of their own (e.g. power-assisted caravans) to reduce the towing burden on an EV
The Self-Powered RV. A focus on the one-box RV to create the electric motorhome
There is a fifth and more speculative strand, the 'Autonomous RV' (ARV), which we'll come to later, but let's look at these four first.
One: The Shrinking RV
European-designed caravans are likely to have a clear advantage over their US and Australian cousins when towed by EVs. European makers such as Bailey, Swift, Knaus, Adria and a host of smaller makers routinely manufacture sub-1,000kg caravans that can be adapted for EV towing without significant design and material changes. As with Carl Meyer's visionary trailer of 1939, we are likely to see more curves and lower profiles appearing in trailer design to keep air resistance down. For similar reasons the teardrop trailer, which has been around for 90 years, is likely to have a bright future ahead due to its light weight and streamlined profile. Teardrops came about in the 1930s to meet the leisure needs of owners with low-powered automobiles, and in 2023 – well, here we are again.
But will the shrinking RV satisfy the needs of consumers wanting to take along the kitchen sink? Some clever space- and weight-saving ideas will be needed for small trailers to gain wider consumer acceptance.
Two: The Electrified RV
For some time it has been inconvenient, space-consuming and even uneconomic to carry multiple fuel types in an RV, especially when those fuels are fossil sourced. Mains electricity, 12 volt electricity (including solar), gasoline, LPG and diesel are currently all used in different measures to drive, tow and power RVs and their appliances. It makes sense to move towards an 'all-electric' RV as we transition to a low-emissions environment.
Some 'all electric' caravans are already available in Australia such as the Retreat ERV and the Harvok electric caravan. These often use 24v or 48v power rather than 12v and are generally intended to eliminate fossil fuel sources (such as LPG and diesel) from an RV while retaining some flexibility to use power-hungry appliances such as air conditioning and to go 'off-grid' for short periods. Most do not yet use electricity for self-propulsion and some are still too heavy to be realistically towed by an EV.
Three: The Power-Boosted RV
Since most RVs already include 'leisure' or 'house' batteries to store power for the RV's electrical appliances, it makes sense to explore whether RV batteries can serve an additional purpose: to aid propulsion. At the expense of greater weight, multiple lithium batteries placed underfloor next to the trailer's axle(s) combined with two or more electric motors to drive the trailer's wheels can significantly reduce the towing burden on an EV.
Of course all appliances in the power-boosted RV will be electric, powered by the trailer's substantial batteries that are in turn recharged (in part) by rooftop solar panels.
German RV manufacturer Dethleffs (part of the Erwin Hymer Group which itself is now owned by Thor Industries of the USA) claims to have developed the world's first 'e-caravan' in 2017. Called the 'E.Home Coco' the caravan is powered by two electric hub motors with independently adjustable speeds to aid turning along with sophisticated software to ensure the caravan's propulsion power does not destabilise the tow vehicle.
Dethleff's Thor connection perhaps makes it unsurprising that another Thor company, Airstream, is developing a similar electric trailer called the eStream.
According to its San Francisco-based designers, the Lightship L1 is designed to have no impact on the range of its tow vehicle regardless of power type. It has up to 80kwH of batteries, up to 3kw of solar panels and all-electric appliances. It changes from 'camp mode' to 'road mode' by dropping its roof down and over the lower half of the trailer, similar to a chocolate box (or to be more up to date, the boxes that iPhones are shipped in). Production is due to begin in Colorado in late 2024.
Of course we cannot miss the opportunity to remind Lightship that the 'chocolate box' (or iPhone box) roof-lifting concept was first used in France in 1919 in the form of the 'Liberated House' shown below. You can read more about the 'Liberated House' here.
Meanwhile Silicon Valley-based Pebble have introduced the Pebble Flow. It has a 45kwH battery and up to 1kwH of solar panels. Unlike the Lightship L1, the Pebble Flow's roof is fixed, although a streamlined front storage box lifts in transit to reduce drag at the front of the trailer. The L1 can be hitched and maneuvered using an app.
An early look at a pre-production Pebble Flow can be obtain from the following video by Miss Go Electric:
The power-boosted all-electric RV is still in relatively early stages of development however, since the towing dynamics involved between an EV towing a power-boosted trailer are complex and will need sophisticated control mechanisms between both vehicles.
RV and caravan park charging infrastructure will need considerable revision and investment to accommodate these new power-boosted RVs.
Four: The Self-Powered RV
Some may argue that the EV revolution means that the travel trailer's days are numbered. Regardless of advances in battery technology, some say that towing any weight will always compromise EV range and that it's better to focus design efforts on a one-box RV solution that is fully electric. In other words, the all-electric motorhome. It would have one or more electric motors to power the vehicle and one set of batteries to supply energy to both the electric motor(s) and the vehicle's (solely electric) appliances. Clean and simple, no trailer required.
Following in the footsteps of the iconic Volkswagen Kombi, the ID. Buzz is one of the first campervans to receive the all-electric treatment. The rapid rollout of electric goods delivery vehicles by Ford, LDV, Renault, Mercedes Benz and others means the bones of an electric motorhome will soon become available to specialist RV fitout companies around the world.
Of course this solution removes the EV towing dilemma, but doesn't solve the now century-old twin problem of a) having to use a motorhome as your main form of daily transport (when not RVing) and b) having no tow vehicle to use to explore locally at your destination (when RVing). Ebikes and possibly Escooters may help to solve the latter problem, but you are more than likely still going to need a second vehicle for your daily commute from home outside the holidays.
Each of the above solutions involves compromises. For those that prefer motorhomes as their RV format of choice, there is no doubt that the fully-electric motorhome will become a viable alternative to fossil fuel-based RV, although range will always be compromised compared to standalone EVs because of the extra weight they must carry.
For the travel trailer, it seems to me that the small-form-factor trailer is an obvious candidate for EV towing but has a limited market restricted to those who don't mind small spaces. Power-assisted trailers are receiving significant attention and investment and will undoubtedly form part of a future RV landscape. Their electric and mechanical complexity are crucial hurdles to overcome, and their success will be in the implementation. Electric motorhomes by contrast, are relatively simple to execute and will suit many existing motorhome owners wanting to go green.
Five: The Autonomous RV ('ARV')
One transport idea which I feel has great promise for the RV of the future is the autonomous RV, or ARV. An mid-pandemic announcement in 2022 by Toyota flew under most peoples' radar. It concerned a radical idea called 'hitchless towing'. You'll need to watch the following video to get the idea: Hitchless Towing System.
At its simplest level it is one four-wheeled vehicle closely following another with no physical connection between the two. While the current concept involves two human-piloted automobiles for safety reasons, think for a moment if the following vehicle(s) is/are autonomously powered 'modules' used for leisure purposes.
Each vehicle would be four-wheeled and independently and electrically powered. The leading vehicle wirelessly controls the speed and direction of the following vehicle(s) using software similar to that used in self-driving vehicles. Subject of course to road safety rules, there is in theory no limit to the number of following vehicles that can be linked invisibly to the leading vehicle.
Consider for a moment the theoretical benefits of this system in an RV context:
linking two or more autonomous, self-powered modules wirelessly completely eliminates the distinction between a motorhome and a travel trailer/caravan
towing safety issues associated with a mechanical hitch (e.g. weight allocation, weight distribution, tow ball mass, safety chains etc.) that can lead to sway and rollovers are removed
Each ARV 'module' is electrically self-powered using its own battery bank and places no weight or towing strain on other modules
Each ARV module can contain anything from seating to sleeping to cooking to recreational space to storage. One module can be used for each purpose at camp or uses can be combined (as currently) to reduce overall length of the combination
The 'driving' module can be used as daily transport at home and an exploratory vehicle at camp. The 'accommodation' module(s) can be left at home when not on holiday (as extra accommodation?) and left at camp when on holiday. Solar panels on each module help to power appliances either at camp or at home
Reversing or precise positioning of each module can be done remotely by fine adjustment of each module's electric motors using an app
Physical power cables can be hooked up between modules at rest and a charging station for charging or to equalise power between modules. Wireless charging of all modules is a future possibility
The number and type of modules used can increase or decrease over time depending on owner's needs
As long as each module is powered from a green source, there are no fossil fuels used in powering either the combination or its appliances
Of course there are some significant issues to be resolved before this concept could possibly be used in the real world. These include:
Road safety issues associated with use of a 'road train' concept, especially in built-up areas
The possible need for physical backup systems required in the event of wireless communication failure
Caravan/trailer park layouts and charging infrastructure
The cost and space requirements of a multiple-module RV
But many of these issues are already being addressed in the autonomous EV world and the technology and lessons learned in this field could filter down quickly into an ARV. And don't get hung up on the number of modules – just one driver module and one trailer module would be the same length as most existing tow vehicle/trailer combinations and would offer a radical solution to the problems associated with current RVs.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the modular road vehicle concept is not new. it was first conceived by the Renard brothers of France in 1903. Their invention was the forerunner of the road trains that are common on Australia's outback roads today.
In the meantime, a realistic and practical alternative to the ideas above would be for the millions of existing fossil-fuel powered RVs or unpowered caravans and trailers to be converted to electric RVs using electric RV conversion kits. Companies offering these products at reasonable prices would be in business for a long time to come, I feel.
Thanks to Toyota for stimulating the debate around the RV of the future and thanks to my son James for sending me the link to the Toyota Hitchless Trailer.