Opinion by Tony Barthel
Somehow, whenever the future of RVing is being discussed, someone calls me or sends an email. While my own crystal ball may be no more polished than anyone else’s, I do have some perspective on what’s ahead for RV enthusiasts.
I love trucks, cars, RVs and anything else with an engine. Perhaps that love comes from the fact that my family came to the U.S. so my dad could help with the engineering of the T3 automotive turbocharger. But I also recognize the challenges of the large vehicles we currently call recreational.
The latest question I got was about the future of RVs in general and, more specifically, Class A diesel pushers.
A history lesson
There was a time of great optimism in the U.S. when we all got to drive cars whose design was dictated solely by stylists. After the styling department did their work, the engineering department then had to figure out how to bend sheet metal into fins and curvy swoops with bulging headlights.
Aside from one rather dismal failure by the Chrysler Corporation in the Airflow series during the 1930s, aerodynamics wasn’t a consideration at all.
Then came the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 and the government decided to begin forcing automakers to make more efficient vehicles. As fuel efficiency standards increased, car design became more and more dictated by how to push that shape through the wind to the point where, today, design is very much dictated by a combination of aerodynamics and crash and other impact safety regulations.
The forces of nature act upon all things the same way, so that’s why your car looks so much like the one in the next lane over.
So looking at how the government is regulating things, there’s no avoiding the drumbeat of zero-emissions vehicle discussion which, at the present time, is focused around electric vehicles. While there are other technologies in use, including hydrogen fuel cells in cars like the Toyota Mirai, most of the energy spent (see what I did there?) is going toward vehicles moved by electric motors.
So what about RVs and, in particular, Class A motorhomes?
Well, they’re doomed. At least in their present state. At least in my opinion.
Class A diesel pushers are very inefficient
Class A diesel pushers are an absolute icon of inefficiency in just about every way possible.
First, aerodynamically they’re a complete disaster, since their shape is dictated by interior space. That means they’re not dictated by how efficiently they move through the air. Part of making a vehicle more aerodynamic includes reducing what is called the frontal area, or the part you have to shove through the air. A 12-foot-tall rectangular box is about the worst possible shape you can create for doing this.
Second, motorhomes essentially spend a vast majority of their time sitting idle. The people who own them spend many tens of thousands of dollars on a resource that they barely use – a gigantic diesel engine. This is the kind of stuff that makes financial planners lose their minds.
Third, most Class A diesel pushers are a litany of things that are there just in case. For example, does the owner of a Class A need 150 gallons of fresh water aboard when they predominantly stay at full-service RV parks? Nope. Do they need giant generators under the same circumstances? Nope.
Of course, there are those who take full advantage of these capabilities and seek them out. They serve some owners very well, as do the large diesel engines that they utilize to travel this wonderful country.
So, is it possible that the Class A motorhome is just doomed? Sort of.
The future of RVs
I mentioned aerodynamics and I think the science of shoving things through the air is going to play an increasing role in the design of our RVs, just as it has with the automobile. Today we have big boxes that are poorly designed for travel but work nicely once parked.
I am betting that we’re going to see travel trailers become designed more for travel as well as being great when parked. In fact, this technology already exists.
One of the few RVs that offer almost full function when parked but also travels well is the TrailManor travel trailer. This design sits inside the tow vehicle’s envelope when rolling down the road but then rises to full height when camped. Another benefit of this design is that it fits inside some garages and is light in weight.
TrailManor owners report that the hit they take in fuel mileage is minimal. Again, this is due to a combination of the trailer’s being relatively light in weight but also not being so detrimental aerodynamically.
However, TrailManor is only a small blip on the radar when it comes to travel trailer sales. What would it take to make them more successful?
Perhaps greater adoption of this type of design. Another thing that would help would be more and more adoption of electric tow vehicles. And, if there is greater demand for trailers that tow more efficiently, other companies are going to adopt this type of design as well.
In fact, there is one company that has specifically tested their trailers for aerodynamics: Safari and their Safari Condo Alto A2124’s odd shape comes specifically because it was designed to slice through the air.
Back to the Class A
As you watch RV sales skyrocket, one of the areas that is not following that trend is the Class A diesel pusher. Class B vans have jumped a full 148% in sales, according to one study, and travel trailer sales are up by half. But Class A motorhomes showed just a relatively tiny blip in sales at a 13.6% increase.
What would make sense is if Class A motorhomes came in two flavors: one that’s very much like today’s models that has all the ability to boondock, and others that were more park-friendly and had less on-board infrastructure but offered greater operating efficiency.
Crazy, you say? But it’s been done before. In fact there was a Class A motorhome that was relatively aerodynamic, had a low profile and drove like a car. That was the GMC MotorHome of the 1970s. But even with the power of General Motors’ engineering, it still wasn’t the best example.
That honor, in my humble opinion, goes to the Ultra Van which was a Corvair-powered fully functional motorhome designed by an aircraft engineer. Surprisingly, it didn’t weigh that much more than the average Corvair of the time and offered everything you would need in an RV – including great fuel economy.
Another thing to think about is that big diesel engine which has a smaller version of itself up front as the generator. This is just dumb.
As we move more and more into electric drive motors, what would make sense for the Class A market is some sort of onboard generator that can provide power to the batteries of a Class A that move it down the road, but also can serve to operate everything inside.
Think of things like a fuel cell, which can operate on propane, as proved by Watt Fuel Cells. That means you could use the existing propane infrastructure, which follows us RVers around like a dog on a leash, but then also offers less maintenance.
The fuel cell could operate in conjunction with the batteries and a solar system to charge the RV when it needs to move. It would also keep those same batteries in check when the rig is stationary. Cloudy day? No problem. Cross-country trip? Also no problem. Very low emissions? Check. Lots and lots of torque to cross the Rockies? Easy.
“More and more governmental agencies are looking at the emissions of diesels and seeing how they can curtail these. One way of doing so is to kill them off altogether. “
This could be something to celebrate
So while some are bemoaning the potential loss of a diesel engine, if we thought a bit differently, this could actually be something to celebrate. Especially for those who like to breathe.
It’s not inconceivable that you have 800 watts of solar on the roof of a big Class A motorhome. But then having an electric drive motor and a propane fuel cell also means the driveline takes less space and makes almost no sound. It is also very clean from an emissions standpoint.
Smaller driveline, smaller rig, longer range. And fewer moving parts means you’re not going to need a $700 oil change ever again.
Where is diesel going?
As someone who loves the grunt of a diesel engine and its associated torque, I realize there might be some who wish to hold onto their diesel engines. But the end of the line for diesel is on the horizon.
I say this because more and more governmental agencies are looking at the emissions of diesels and seeing how they can curtail these. One way of doing so is to kill them off altogether.
Diesel engines themselves are very, very efficient and diesel fuel has more energy than gasoline. Furthermore, diesel emissions have less carbon dioxide than a gasoline engine. However, diesel does have two big disadvantages: nitrogen oxide emissions and particulate emissions. Oh, and the numerous studies that show that diesel exhaust can be a carcinogen.
As a society, we were doing fine with accepting some of this. Many European agencies were even encouraging people to drive diesel passenger cars, which were made more palatable by ever-improving emissions systems.
Until Volkswagen screwed the pooch. Volkswagen figured out that their front-drive cars were being emissions tested when only the front wheels were turning and the rear wheels were stationary, such as during an emissions test. So some clever engineers figured that they could run the engines to optimize emissions during testing but optimize performance and fuel economy on the road.
And then we found out. And heads rolled at VW as the company racked up almost $35 billion in fines, charges and penalties around the world. But, more than that, suddenly customers no longer wanted diesel passenger cars.
Diesel sales are continually declining
Diesel sales went from as high as 85% in Italy to some 35% recently, with numbers continuing to decline.
Government agencies, including our own federal government and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) are sitting in rooms figuring out how to eliminate diesel engines altogether.
Don’t believe me? This is why you see companies like Ford coming out with large gasoline V8s that rival their diesels for performance in heavy-duty vehicles. They talk to regulators and regulators are burning the midnight solar panels to kick diesel to the curb.
In fact, recently CARB had planned to really crack down on diesels all around including motorhomes coming in from out of state – until the RV industry took note and fought them on it. But you almost lost your privilege to just casually visit California with your diesel motorhome.
And don’t think the war is over.
Another salvo is the government doing what it can to at least keep diesel engines in compliance, as witnessed by the actions against companies like EZ-Lynk.
So now what?
I think the RV space is going to change with a combination of technologies and governmental intrusion. With ever-increasing numbers of electric tow vehicles hitting the roads and on the horizon, we’re going to see demand for towable RVs that don’t put such a hit on the range of these vehicles.
I also see the days of diesels in private hands going by the wayside. Not soon, but soon enough.
Would I buy a diesel-anything today? As a friend of mine in the legislature told me, “Only as a short-term waste of your money.” Ouch.