When Tesla launched the Model X in 2015, the world’s first electric SUV rolled on to a stage towing an Airstream travel trailer. In what seems like unintentional foreshadowing, the $30 billion US recreational vehicle market is now getting the Tesla treatment.
A pair of California startups staffed by alumni of the electric car company have developed the first self-propelled, battery-and-solar-powered travel trailers. The vehicles are set to hit the market in late 2024. Following the Tesla playbook, San Francisco’s Lightship and Silicon Valley-based Pebble aim to not just electrify a century-old icon of the American road; the companies are attempting to reinvent it for the EV age.
“We’re using technology to automate the hardest part of RVing, bringing this iPhone-like experience to the RV,” says Bingrui Yang, Pebble’s chief executive officer and an Apple veteran.
The Bay Area would seem an unlikely birthplace of the RV revolution. Finding somewhere to park a Model X, let alone a 30-foot-long travel trailer, is hard enough. And the closest many locals get to RVing is renting a rig for a few days during the annual August exodus to Burning Man. Yet this may just be the time and place for electric trailer tech to blossom, given the confluence of the pandemic-triggered desire to escape to nature and growth of remote work along with the boom in EVs and efforts to build resilience to climate-driven power disruptions.
That’s because an electric travel trailer isn’t just an Instagrammable tiny house on wheels. If they fulfill their pre-production promises, the RVs equipped with powerful batteries and solar panels will become mobile power plants, capable of operating off the grid for days or powering stationary homes during a blackout. Down the road, electric travel trailers could also supply power to the grid, helping utilities balance renewable energy production. (One hitch in that vision is the need to build out charging infrastructure at campgrounds.)
Lightship’s L1 Long Range travel trailer, for instance, boasts an 80 kilowatt-hour battery pack and a 3-kilowatt solar array integrated into its roof and awnings. “That’s approaching the amount of solar you put on your average house and six Tesla Powerwalls’ worth of energy,” says Lightship co-founder and chief executive officer Toby Kraus, referring to Tesla’s home battery system.
That startup’s offices in a San Francisco warehouse are filled with prototypes of the L1, including two chassis where engineers test battery configurations and power management systems. Co-founder Ben Parker, who’s also the company’s chief product officer, was a battery engineer on the Tesla Model 3. Kraus, meanwhile, served as a product manager for the Model S.
Towing a 7,500-pound travel trailer puts a serious dent in the fuel economy of a fossil fuel-powered vehicle and reduces the range of an electric pick-up truck or SUV. The 27-foot-long L1 eliminates that penalty by propelling itself with an electric drive motor. Its sleek shape further reduces drag as does a feature called “road mode.” When you’re ready to hit the highway, the upper half of the 10-foot-tall trailer lowers so its profile is a shade under 7 feet tall when towed. (In “camp mode,” the L1’s interior ceiling height is 7 feet 6 inches and the wraparound windows give the vehicle an airy vibe.)
“People buy trucks to do truck stuff and one of those top things is towing,” says Kraus.
Increasingly, those trucks and other tow vehicles are electric. About a third of RVers own an electric vehicle and half of EV owners plan to tow a travel trailer, according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA). Investors have taken note of that interest with Lightship having raised $27 million in funding while Pebble has secured $13.6 million.
Steve Krivolavek and his wife Katie Krivolavek have been towing an Airstream with their Model X since 2020. “Range loss is real,” says Steve. The Lincoln, Nebraska, couple have put $500 down to reserve an L1. “Having that battery pack to go off grid and not worry about power for a long time is huge,” he says.
The stereotype of the RVer as a retiree is also falling by the roadside: before the pandemic, the median age of RV owners was 53, but in 2022 the median age of first-time RV buyers had dropped to 32, RVIA surveys show.
“The market has dramatically changed,” says Craig Kirby, RVIA’s chief executive officer. “I’m expecting younger buyers to continue to move into the market, and they’ll want electric vehicles and want to do right by the environment.”
Pebble last week unveiled a self-propelled travel trailer designed to cater to post-pandemic wanderlust. The Pebble Flow features a 45-kilowatt-hour battery and built-in rooftop solar panels that generate 1 kilowatt of electricity. The 25-foot-long RV shares the L1’s futuristic aesthetic, replacing propane tanks and gas-powered appliances with induction stoves and touchscreens. A wall of electrochromic glass that sheaths the bathroom turns opaque at the touch of a button.
“The RVs on the market today generally only get used two weeks out of the entire year, but we’ve designed this product so it can be used all the time,” says Yang, who founded Pebble and previously worked on autonomous driving systems at Cruise and Zoox. “When you’re parked at home, you can use it as a home office and for energy backup.”
The Pebble Flow autonomously hitches itself to a tow vehicle. It also spares the driver the onerous task of backing the RV into a campsite with the tow vehicle. At the company’s Silicon Valley offices, chief technology officer Stefan Solyom shows how. Solyom, who worked on autonomous vehicle technology at Tesla and Volvo, is standing outside an unhitched blue Pebble Flow prototype parked in a fenced-off driveway.
Holding a iPad Mini tablet that comes with the RV, he calls up an app and the Pebble Flow purrs to life. Using the tablet as a remote control, he maneuvers the travel trailer around the tight confines of the driveway. With another swipe on the screen, metal legs descend from the Pebble Flow’s undercarriage to stabilize the travel trailer as steps to the door unfurl.
The Pebble Flow, which sleeps four people, sells for $125,000. A version that is not self-propelled and doesn’t include autonomous hitching or remote control is $109,000. The L1 can sleep up to six people and costs $151,500 (federal tax credits for the solar panels and battery storage can drop the price to $139,600, though). An L1 that comes with a 45-kilowatt-hour battery but without self-propulsion retails for $125,000, or $118,400 after tax credits. Those prices are at the high end of the market but comparable with brands like Airstream, maker of the iconic travel trailer.
“It’s kind of an expensive car or a really cheap house,” says Kraus.
In February 2022, Airstream, owned by RV giant Thor Industries, unveiled its own self-propelled, remote controlled electric travel trailer called the eStream. That remains a concept vehicle with no set release date.
“Putting a powertrain in the trailers is a really big deal, and we are doing significant development and testing work and are progressing to market,” says McKay Featherstone, Thor’s senior vice president for global innovation. “But it’s not a race to be first from our standpoint.”
He says the company is working with the RVIA to ensure that campgrounds are EV-ready and take advantage of federal Inflation Reduction Act incentives for electrification. Meanwhile, Thor, which has cornered just under half the RV market in the US, continues to make smaller steps to electrify its travel trailers, such as installing lithium-ion batteries to run appliances.
While RVIA data shows there’s a growing cadre of RVers who are interested in going electric, some of the features packed into the L1 and Pebble Flow could give some buyers pause.
Mike Pitcher and Pam Pitcher, friends of mine in Garland, Texas, who began RVing during the pandemic, said they appreciated the future-forward design and the ability to tap the batteries when utility rates spike appealed to them. But they noted their homeowners’ association wouldn’t allow an RV to be parked in their driveway, limiting how much they could use it for backup power. Relying on so many high-tech electronics also made them nervous, given their experience with glitchy travel trailers.
They were, however, sold on other features. “Absolutely loved the self-hitch automatic remote feature in the Pebble,” says Mike. “Game changer! That feature alone would appeal to every RVer!”
(Updates description of the L1’s drive train in paragraph 8. Updates paragraph 12 to clarify the age of RV owners with new RVIA information.)
To contact the author of this story:
Todd Woody in San Francisco at email@example.com
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