Would you buy a powered trailer like the Airstream eStream concept we shared? I was able to sit in on a call with Airstream President Bob Wheeler and McKay Featherstone, head of development, and learn more about this interesting concept.
The thing the team said numerous times is that this is, in fact, just a concept—just as the wild concept cars are that you see in auto shows. While it is closer to reality than, perhaps, GM’s 1956 Firebird II self-driving gas turbine car, the team at Airstream said this is more a project to see how things work plus how customers react. However, the reception from interested parties has been huge.
What is the eStream
Airstream’s eStream concept is a single-axle travel trailer that embodies much of the traditional Airstream style onto a platform originally developed by ZF in Germany. Through a licensing agreement with Thor, Airstream’s parent company, they were able to get the chassis technology and implement it in this trailer.
Key features of the concept include the fact that there are two 40kWh lithium batteries mounted between the frame rails, one ahead of the axle and one behind, and two electric drive motors. Using what almost amounts to a surge brake controller, the eStream can use the two electric motors to overcome the losses inherent in towing a travel trailer.
These losses include frictional losses but, more importantly, aerodynamic losses as well. Towing a big brick behind any vehicle introduces a fuel economy penalty, as anybody who has towed a travel trailer will attest to. The eStream aims to eliminate those losses so your tow vehicle’s fuel economy and range are not affected by having this trailer in tow.
Further, the two motors are tied to a bunch of technology that adds additional benefits in the form of stability control and traction when the road gets slippery. So you could take this to your favorite skiing weekend, for example, and not have as much of a white-knuckle driving experience getting there.
May not need a weight distribution hitch with the eStream
In theory, you likely won’t need a weight distribution hitch with this rig, which eliminates a pain point—hitching and unhitching a travel trailer.
On the subject of aerodynamic losses, the eStream was also tested in a wind tunnel. You don’t see things like roof-mounted air conditioning or vents. While Airstream trailers, in general, are more aerodynamic than some other travel trailers, this is a step above.
Aerodynamic testing is unusual in the RV industry but common for automobiles. That’s why cars nowadays all have very similar shapes. Basically cutting through the wind involves certain physical aspects.
Technology in the eStream
Wheeler described the eStream as a complete re-think from the ball backward. There is nothing unusual a tow vehicle needs to operate the trailer. Instead, the sensing system determines what’s going on with the road, speed, towing and all of that, and adjusts accordingly. At no point does the trailer push the tow vehicle, but it does overcome the losses inherent in towing.
The platform was tested in Europe, where an Audi eTron SUV towed a trailer similar in size to the eStream over the Alps.
Like most electric vehicles, the eStream features regenerative braking. It uses the electric motors to provide power to the battery system. So, for example, going down a hill, the motors actually recharge the battery.
As such, Featherstone indicated that the test vehicle and trailer had a full range when hitting the bottom of the Alps. While there are obviously losses going up the hills, you regain some, or all, of that energy coming back down.
The eStream is “the art of the possible”
“This concept vehicle is the art of the possible,” said Featherstone.
The whole system is designed with higher voltages internally, so that means more efficient transfer of energy. In other words, with higher voltage comes faster charging. How fast?
Depending on the final battery system, it could be as quick as 30-45 minutes in a high-capacity charging station.
If you camp in a campground with a 30-amp hook-up, then it would take longer, of course. But the team indicated it wouldn’t take longer than you would anticipate staying overnight. Perhaps a few hours on a 30-amp plug.
At its most basic function, this is a travel trailer and a fully functional one at that. So those giant batteries, about 30 times what you would normally find in an Airstream, do a lot to keep you camping. How much?
Even though all the systems aboard this trailer are 100% electric, the company still guesstimates that you could spend a week off-grid. Obviously, this would likely exceed the water storage—so that becomes the limiting factor.
But to keep things charged, and owing to the fact that there’s no AC nor vent holes in the roof, this 21-foot trailer has 900 watts of solar on the roof.
Apparently, relocating things like the air conditioning meant moving it to a place under the bed, which some other brands have done. Also, the AC unit would be a heat pump. Cooking would be of the induction variety, and water and space heat are done electrically. Admittedly, improvements in efficiency will also help with this.
Is the eStream real
“When you build a concept vehicle like this, it’s really a learning experience. But it also helps gauge the public’s interest,” said Wheeler.
He added that a trailer with exactly these specs and configuration is probably never going to make production. But the components and aspects of the trailer that do meet, or exceed, what Airstream customers desire could very well get green-lighted.
If something like the eStream makes it to market, it would be a separate product from the ones produced by Airstream. So you might still find Internationals and Land Yachts at a dealership, but you could also find eStreams. A big part of the final configuration lies within customer demands along with production realities.
Of course this is the big question. There isn’t a specific answer since much of this trailer is theoretical. But Wheeler indicated that the trailer would have to make sense to Airstream customers.
“We swung for the fences here – it’s packed,” said Wheeler. “Costs will depend on the feature set that customers value and are willing to pay for.”
One of the benefits of this chassis is the fact that the powered wheels can also act as an anti-theft device. You can literally lock the wheels so the trailer wouldn’t be an easy target for thieves.
The whole thing was built for a number of reasons, but one of those is just to focus on the customer experience.
The interior materials in the eStream were chosen both for design and style, but also for having minimal environmental impact. While the company repeatedly talked about having a lower impact on the environment, a good thing, of course there are still lithium batteries and such.
Window in the floor of the eStream
One of the cool things I liked, being a Gadget Geek, was the window in the floor of the trailer so you can see the batteries and motor. Hey, I’d like this!
For example, as with any trailer, one of the big pain points is getting it into a site. This trailer can be maneuvered into a camping space using an app on a tablet or phone. But the trailer would likely also have sensors to be able to avoid obstacles like low-hanging branches and such.
“We believe we have the possibility of simplifying the hitching and unhitching by redistributing the batteries and weight so you may not need a weight distribution hitch,” added Featherstone.
NHTSA has laws in place for self-powered trailers
Interestingly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees vehicle regulation, already has laws in place for self-powered trailers, according to Wheeler.
One of the unusual things about the trailer is that there is very little tongue weight in the design. That helps with maneuvering on surfaces that may not be kind to the little wheel on the tongue.
I would love to read your comments and suggestions over on our new forums, where you can weigh in and start or join a discussion about all things RV. Here’s a link to my RV Reviews Forum.
Tony comes to RVtravel.com having worked at an RV dealership and been a lifelong RV enthusiast. He also has written the syndicated Curbside column about cars. You can find his writing here and at StressLessCamping where he also has a podcast about the RV life with his wife.
These RV reviews are written based on information provided by the manufacturers along with our writer’s own research. We receive no money or other financial benefits from these reviews. They are intended only as a brief overview of the vehicle, not a comprehensive critique, which would require a thorough inspection and/or test drive.
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