Late last year, Harbinger, makers of electric commercial truck chassis, and Thor Industries, one of the largest RV conglomerates, announced a partnership to create advanced motorhomes. That press release was awfully thin on actual details. I got to speak with Harbinger’s CEO as well as Thor’s team on their future of RVs and I’m loving what I see. How about a coach that goes 250 miles on a charge and drives closer to a pickup truck than a bus? Let’s dig into this.
Harbinger first appeared on our radar back in September 2022 at the Detroit Auto Show. Back then, Harbinger had a snazzy display showing off its scalable stripped chassis commercial truck platform and an example of a complete delivery truck with Harbinger bones. When our Jason Torchinsky wrote about Harbinger, he noted that motorhomes sometimes ride on chassis like this and figured that could be a possible application for Harbinger’s tech. As it turns out, Thor Industries was thinking the same thing!
(Full Disclosure: Harbinger and Thor Industries invited me to the Indiana RV Open House to have dinner with Harbinger’s leadership before exploring Harbinger’s chassis and the latest tech on hand from Thor. Harbinger paid for my lodging and food, I paid for my own fuel.)
Harbinger Motors was founded in 2021 in Southern California with a mission to change the game for medium-duty vehicles. Its co-founders start with CEO John Harris, a man with a resume that includes Anduril Industries, Boeing, Faraday Future, and Xos Trucks. The company’s CTO is Phillip Weicker, who brings experience from Canoo, Faraday Future, QuantumScape, Coda Automotive, and EnergyCS. The final co-founder is COO Will Eberts, who brings experience from Anduril Industries, Canoo, Faraday Future, Moog Inc., and General Atomics ASI.
I also spoke with General Counsel & Head of Corporate Development Michael Fielkow. In the past, Fielkow was deputy general counsel and VP of global strategy over at Canoo. Fielkow also has a brilliant idea for how to solve the problems surrounding charging large electric motorhomes and electric travel trailers. We’ll get to that later in this story!
If you go to Harbinger’s website, you’ll find a quote from Harris:
“We are building the future of electric mobility. There are a huge variety of vehicles built on medium-duty platforms, and by taking on electrification in this segment, we are delivering a better solution for the backbone of an entire industry.”
Indeed, medium-duty trucks seem like a great segment to electrify. These are trucks that don’t need to drive across a country but work within a city or a region. These are trucks that do local deliveries, haul equipment for landscapers, or pick up refuse from suburban curbs. Medium-duty commercial trucks carry loads to job sites, move earth, help repair infrastructure, keep the lights on, tow disabled vehicles, and so much more. If a business has something that needs to be moved somewhere nearby, chances are you might find a medium-duty vehicle doing the job.
Harris and Fielkow tell me that the great thing about medium-duty trucks is that the demand is already there. Firms looking to replace their trucks are interested in cleaner technology and possibly finding ways to reduce their costs. It won’t be a surprise to anyone here, but it’s not cheap to run a diesel commercial truck. You have to pay for fuel, routine maintenance, filters, engine repairs, and more. An electric powertrain means no more diesel exhaust fluid, no more fuel filters, no more oil changes, and no more being at the whim of the price of diesel. A number of the medium-duty trucks out there also run and return to the same place every night, so operators don’t have to worry much about America’s questionable charging network.
Of course, I recently got to test out the Bollinger B4 medium-duty truck, so I bet you’re wondering how these two companies compare. While both companies are in the commercial truck space, both companies are taking a different approach.
Bollinger has decided to take the path of least resistance. Its trucks use as many outsourced parts as possible. Bollinger’s axles are from Dana, its cabs come from China, and its batteries from ONE. Bollinger is keeping things simple, sticking with Class 4 (14,001–16,000 pounds), with a Class 5 (16,001–19,500 pounds) on the horizon.
On the other side, we have Harbinger. This company isn’t building a truck with a cab, but a scalable chassis that you can put anything you want on top. As of now, Harbinger is targeting Class 4 to Class 7 (26,001–33,000 pounds) and Harris tells me a chassis cab will be in its future as well.
Harbinger’s approach to technology is also very different than Bollinger’s. While Bollinger uses third-party parts, Harbinger’s platform is developed in-house. Check out this graphic:
Harris and Fielkow tell me their trucks will be able to last the long haul. Medium-duty commercial trucks often see a good two decades and a few hundred thousand miles of service before retirement, so the EV trucks will have to do the same. Even my RTS bus drove for 20 years and 400,000 miles before Texas A&M finally decided to call it quits.
Making an EV last that long is a challenge and I think Harbinger has some interesting ideas. Harbinger’s batteries use 2170 cylindrical cells and the cells are packed into large aluminum cases offering up to 35 kWh of power and 40 miles of range each. This 800-volt architecture is scalable, so if you want more range, just toss in more of the 35 kWh packs. These trucks need to last 20 years and 450,000 miles, so Harbinger took a look at what aged EVs look like and decided to go a different direction. When Harris spoke with Ars Technica, he mentioned that old Tesla batteries would have good cells, but enclosures that rusted out from over a decade of exposure. This is because, as Harris says, typical EV car packs are constructed from stamped steel components that are sealed together with body sealer. Harbinger uses a casting press to encase its batteries in single-piece aluminum boxes. This eliminates those aforementioned failure points.
Going with 800 V isn’t really for fast charging, either. After all, many of these trucks will be charging overnight at depots. Instead, it’s for efficiency and weight. Harbinger doesn’t need to use as much copper and the motor can be much smaller as well. However, Harbinger does note that the trucks could fast charge in about an hour.
It’s not super easy to see in photos, but Harbinger’s chassis rides lower to the ground than what you’d find in a diesel. So, while Harbinger’s batteries don’t hang low like a Bollinger, a Harbinger should still be a far better drive than a typical diesel truck. A low chassis also means when the truck is upfitted as a delivery vehicle, the floor is 28 inches off of the ground. That’s less work for a driver who will be stepping in and out of their vehicle all day.
All of this is developed in-house from the eAxle, the battery packs, and even Harbinger’s steer-by-wire system. Oh yeah, the steering wheel is not physically connected to the front wheels. This allows for even greater flexibility, but also for a much better drive.
If you’ve ever driven a commercial vehicle, you’re well aware that steering is often far from an enjoyable experience. That steering also changes as you load down the vehicle. In going with a steer-by-wire system, Harbinger says it can offer an easy driving experience at all times. Using software, the chassis could effectively change ratios on the fly, you get easy and nimble steering in the city and tight handling at speed. Harbinger’s steering also accounts for weight, so a loaded truck feels similar to an unloaded truck. The idea is that you can get a commercial truck (or an RV) that drives better than a commercial truck.
This steer-by-wire system is also backed up by redundancies. There are two steering motors, two controllers, and two sets of every component used to make the steering work. If a component fails, there’s a second to take over.
How All Of This Works As A Motorhome
Back in November 2022, Harbinger and Thor announced a partnership to create a new electrified motorhome. At first, this will be a Class 6 (19,501–26,000 pounds) rig with a Class A motorhome body. For those of you not aware of how these classes work, this means a transit bus-style coach. Thor and Harbinger are aiming to create an aerodynamic motorhome that will get about 250 miles of range on a charge. If they’re able to pull this off, the pair will not only have a larger electric motorhome than Winnebago and Grounded, but one that will go more than twice the range. Currently, Grounded and Winnebago are building camper vans out of Ford E-Transits, which go about 108 miles on a charge.
Just days ago, Harbinger announced it has received $60 million in Series A funding from investors including Ridgeline, a venture capital firm, and Thor Industries. Harbinger will be sending its chassis to Thor next year. Then, its brands will take the chassis and build motorhomes out of them. Thor was not able to tell me which brands will be using Harbinger’s platform. As Harris explained to me, Thor’s brands have a ton of autonomy, so any of the brands can choose to have a Harbinger Class A coach. Personally, I could totally see Airstream bringing back a Class A coach using Harbinger’s chassis. Thor Motor Coach and Entegra Coach also seem to be obvious fits as well. I am told that Thor will be encouraging its brands to innovate using Harbinger’s chassis, too.
What should come out of the other side would be pretty awesome. Since Harbinger is providing a bare chassis, the sky is the limit. You can put a low-floor aerodynamic body on top of that chassis. Harris tells me that something great about the Harbinger chassis is the fact that none of its batteries or powertrain will conflict with holding tanks or RV gear. So, the brands won’t need to do anything crazy to make it work.
Also, those Harbinger batteries will also do double-duty as the RV’s house battery. This not only eliminates the problem of finding a house battery (something both Grounded and Winnebago have to deal with) but means you have tons of juice for boondocking as well as running multiple hungry appliances at the same time.
In theory, Harbinger’s approach means better integration than what Grounded and Winnebago are doing. Those latter companies are essentially converting existing electric vans, with the low range that they currently come with.
Harbinger is giving Thor’s brands a blank canvas that they can use to adapt as they please. Harbinger is working with Thor so that the completed coaches should feel like they were built for the purpose of RVing. Both Harris and Fielkow feel that offering customers a bare chassis offers far more flexibility than offering them a van.
Over at Thor, I was shown different bits and pieces that could be included in travel trailers and motorhomes one day. I was not allowed to take pictures of these objects, so you’ll have to live with me describing them.
One of Thor’s innovations is a thick foam core roof reinforced with glass fibers. As Thor’s engineers showed me, you could puncture this material and the damage will be isolated. Giving a specific example, an engineer told me a tree branch could punch partly through the roof, and while water would pool in the damaged area, it would not spread to the walls or the rest of the roof. The roof material was lightweight enough for me to lift with one hand and it apparently has good insulation properties as well. If the roof material is half as good as what was shown to me, I would say that Thor should ditch the wood-framed roofs today.
Next, Thor showed me a flexible solar panel awning. It does exactly what it says on the tin and you get an awning that provides shade while also helping to juice up your batteries. Thor didn’t really reinvent the wheel here. Instead, you get rectangular panels that are solid. What folds is the fabric space between those panels. When folded, the awning is a rectangle rather than a circle like a typical awning. The panels themselves are made so that damage to one panel keeps energy flowing. An engineer showed me a solar panel that had taken a bullet but was still working, albeit with reduced capacity [Ed note: where are you camping? MH].
The next biggest innovation I saw was metal-reinforced composite counters, cabinets, and benches. If you’ve been in a camper before, you know how nasty the plywood and particle board interior bits can be. Making all of it plastic (with hidden metal poles for support) is actually a vast improvement. Thor showed me plastic interior parts that are apparently already in production in Europe and will be coming to America soon. They’re stronger than what we already have, they feel better to touch, and they are lighter. Sure, that means fake plastic woodgrain, but I dig it.
Other tech bits from Thor’s display include Starlink and a vehicle software system that allows you and service technicians to interact with your vehicle with ease. Say you get some error screen. Thor’s vehicle system will allow you to pull out your phone, report the issue, and get support from your dealer. It’s basically the kind of tech support you could get for your computer but for a coach.
Charging An Electric Motorhome
Of course, none of this solves the problem with charging. As of right now, you’ll find that many, if not most public chargers are stalls, not pull-through spaces. This is bad news for those going camping with electrified vehicles. Say you have a Rivian R1T and you’re towing a Lightship L1. Because the Lightship L1 has its own battery and its own traction motors, you can tow that trailer with minimal range loss to your Rivian. That’s great! But what happens when both the truck and the trailer run low on battery? Right now, you’ll have to back the trailer into a charging spot, decouple the Rivian, and then park it into a charging spot. It’s convoluted and would probably get annoying very fast. Not to mention, you’ll be hogging two charging spots. That’s assuming you can get the Lightship into a position that the public charger can plug into.
None of the companies I’ve interviewed thus far have a solution to this problem. Turning the electric camper into a Class A motorhome doesn’t really help. Now you’re trying to shove a camper into a space meant to park something no larger than perhaps a Ford E-Transit.
My proposal would be the installation of pull-through spaces. We’re going to need them, anyway, if the trucking industry will be expected to go EV.
Fielkow explained to me that motorhomes are in an interesting spot. Research from the Thor and Harbinger partnership suggests that a ton of RV trips actually happen within that 250-mile range from home. A lot of RV owners don’t go very far and for them, the 250-mile range will be great. When the owner of a Harbinger-based RV parks at a campground with shore power, the existing shore power infrastructure at the campground will be enough to charge the motorhome overnight. Just plug in and use the camper as you normally would and the campsite will top up the battery.
Those wanting to go across the country might find themselves in a tougher spot. Again, America’s charging infrastructure isn’t really built for motorhomes. Fielkow told me that he thinks RV chargers at campgrounds could be a solution to that. So, when a motorhome owner runs low, they could just pull into chargers at the local KOA or similar, top up, and then get back on the road. You get a charge, the campground gets some business, and everyone wins. Of course, Harbinger is not in the business of building chargers, so the solution to this will be from somewhere else.
At any rate, some or all of the aforementioned Thor technology developments could show up in a Harbinger-based motorhome. While neither Harbinger nor Thor could give me a timeline, I’m told that we could expect to see a Harbinger-based Thor motorhome soon. This should be within the next few years, not 10 years and beyond. If so, Thor might leapfrog itself ahead of the competition. We’ll be monitoring the progress of this project, as we are with Winnebago’s development.
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
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