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Proof of Concept

Prototype electric recreational vehicles contain technology that can be applied to boats
Trends that are merging in the RV and boat industries include electrification, connectivity and smart subsystems that transmit data.

Trends that are merging in the RV and boat industries include electrification, connectivity and smart subsystems that transmit data.

Some of the biggest brand names in the recreational vehicle industry unveiled fully electric motorhome concept vehicles and trailers in January, with indications that the fast-evolving technology could be applied to increasingly larger boats within the next decade.

Winnebago Industries, whose portfolio of companies includes several RV brands as well as Chris-Craft and Barletta boats, brought its first all-electric, zero-emission concept vehicle — the e-RV — to January’s Florida RV SuperShow in Tampa. At the same show, Thor Industries, parent of 17 RV companies including Airstream, presented two electric concepts: the Thor Vision Vehicle, or TVV, motorhome, and the eStream travel trailer. And in Europe, Mercedes-Benz introduced a prototype camper version of its all-electric EQV van.

The technological advancements in these concept RVs are promising for the near-future development of larger electric powerboats. Today’s leading electric powerboat models, such as X Shore’s Eelex 8000, Candela’s C7 and C8, and Ingenity’s Super Air Nautique GS22E, already compete with some gas- and diesel-powered competitors in terms of speed. Electric-powerboat builders also have also been focused on increasing range: When Hinckley Yachts unveiled the groundbreaking 28-foot Dasher in 2017, it had a range of 35 miles at 7 knots; today’s 26-foot X Shore Eelex 8000 has an approximate range of 100 nautical miles at 5 to 6 knots.

Thor Industries  is going all-in with electric. Pictured here are the TVV RV, which has a 300-mile range, and the Airstream eStream travel trailer.

Thor Industries is going all-in with electric. Pictured here are the TVV RV, which has a 300-mile range, and the Airstream eStream travel trailer.

Today’s leading electric powerboats differ from RVs and larger cruising powerboats, however, in terms of on-board amenities. What the new, relatively small RV concept vehicles add is not just increased range, but also electrified features such as toilets, microwaves, marine-grade refrigerators, induction cooktops and residential-grade Wi-Fi, features the marine industry figured out ages ago. “An RV is a really complex system. In the concept vehicle we have built, all of these systems are powered by the battery,” says Ashis Bhattacharya, senior vice president of business development and advanced technology at Winnebago Industries.

Bhattacharya says Winnebago started development on the e-RV two years ago and has already driven the prototype vehicle a couple-thousand miles. The company’s Advanced Technology Group, much like Correct Craft’s Watershed Innovation in the marine space, was created to think about trends that will affect consumer demand and manufacturing a decade or more into the future. At Winnebago Industries, the Advanced Technology Group can partner on technological ideas with any of the businesses within the parent company’s stable of brands, creating prototypes and bringing the technology to market.

The Advanced Technology Group launched its first all-electric vehicle in 2018. It was similar to a medium-size RV, about 27 feet, and built for the University of California-Los Angeles medical system to use as a mobile site for sterilizing surgical instruments. At larger hospitals, that kind of sterilization process is completed on-site, but at smaller sites with limited square footage, the vehicle can sit outside without generating any emissions, in keeping with legal prohibitions on engine idling.

eStream-4

At the same time, Winnebago’s Specialty Vehicles brand has been building RVs for uses that include mobile preschools and veterinary clinics. “In Vail Valley, Colo., we also did a children’s mobile preschool in the electric vehicle,” Bhattacharya says. “This technology is something we’ve been working with for the last five years in different ways. We even made a small investment in an electric vehicle company called Motiv Power Systems.”

Now development of the e-RV for recreational use has reached the phase where Winnebago Industries needs user input. That’s why the e-RV was unveiled to the public in January — so customers could actually see that it’s a real vehicle, then start to think about all the ways they might want to use electric-powered RVs in the future. “We are not saying it’s ready to be sold yet, but it’s built-out, and it’s road-tested,” he says. “We wanted to take it to our customers and dealers and say, ‘We’ve taken it so far, but we want to enter a process of co-creation with this technology. What is your wish list? What do you want to see?’ ”

As with boats, he says, one of the top concerns RV customers have about electric vehicles is range. The TVV from Thor Industries, built on an electric chassis co-developed with Roush, has integrated fuel cell components that give it a range of up to 300 miles. The e-RV, built on a Ford Transit chassis modified with an electric power system from Lighting eMotors, has a range of 125 miles while powering the on-board systems. Both companies note that the concept vehicle ranges allow for the typical distances that many RV users drive nonstop. According to RV industry data, more than half of RV owners typically limit their trips to less than 200 miles.

Emerging electric technologies will benefit both the marine and RV industries. 

Emerging electric technologies will benefit both the marine and RV industries. 

“Our team has conducted a massive amount of research targeted at understanding the impact of design elements on extending range, including the aerodynamics of the units,” Todd Woelfer, chief operating officer at Thor Industries, announced at the start of the Florida RV SuperShow. “Our strategy to create a unique electric experience specifically tailored for RV users has identified a number of product enhancement opportunities that we can and will implement well before we industrialize the electrified units.”

The technology is advancing so quickly, Bhattacharya says, that by the time concepts like the e-RV are ready for commercial production, range will have increased even more. In just the past two years since development began on the e-RV, he says, the company that installed the electric drivetrain has added another 50 miles of range to the technology.

Other recent advancements suggest even bigger leaps on that horizon. In January alone, a two-year-old Michigan startup called Our Next Energy showed how it could modify a Tesla Model S car with a battery that allowed it to run 750 miles on a single charge, and Mercedes-Benz’s Vision EQXX concept was unveiled with a goal of providing a 620-mile range in a luxury sedan.

Winnebago’s electric e-RV took two years to develop and has a range of 125 miles. 

Winnebago’s electric e-RV took two years to develop and has a range of 125 miles. 

“We expect that by the time we come out with a commercial vehicle, this technology will be even more advanced,” Bhattacharya says of the e-RV. “My thinking is it’s a couple of years. In the meantime, we are thinking of having a limited commercial launch. We might build 50 or 100 of these vehicles to sell to customers, but we will really use them in partnership with customers to understand more about usage and how we can refine it.”

Bhattacharya says similar technology could start showing up in, say, Chris-Craft boats within five to seven years. “You will see boats with a lot more connectivity, boats with apps, boats with bigger batteries that allow them to be independent away from shore for a longer period of time,” he says. “These are the trends.”

Winnebago-Industries,-e-RV_Bed-setup
The e-RV’s interior. 

The e-RV’s interior. 

And they’re good trends, he adds, both for bringing in new customers and for retaining many of the newcomers to RVing and boating since the start of the pandemic. He sees a merging of trends — electrification, connectivity and smart subsystems that transmit data — in a way that should be a boon for all kinds of new customers. “Many of them are pretty clueless about marine systems, how they work, safety on the water — they just get into a boat and start driving,” Bhattacharya says. “What we’re going to be seeing with these technologies is making boats easier to use. There will be collision-avoidance systems, and ease of use like assisted-docking systems.”

Boats such as the X Shore Eelex 8000, with its 100-nautical-mile range, are changing the way people think about electric propulsion. 

Boats such as the X Shore Eelex 8000, with its 100-nautical-mile range, are changing the way people think about electric propulsion. 

He says people who have grown up with boats have a dismissive attitude toward these things. “They say, ‘Real men and women don’t boat like that,’ but this is a different generation. They say, ‘Yes, I love the feel of the water, but I don’t want to have a toolbox to travel.’ ” 

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.

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