As electric cars and trucks continue to proliferate in America, a number of owners face a difficult problem. If you tow a camper with your EV, you can expect to lose a massive chunk of your range. Then you have to figure out how to charge your tow vehicle while dealing with the camper just to do it all over again. This makes the prospect of going on a camping road trip with an EV an endeavor perhaps not worth taking. For Tesla alums Ben Parker and Toby Kraus, the solution to this is clear: The RV world needs a camper that can essentially haul itself, allowing the tow vehicle to retain most, if not all of its original range. This is the Lightship L1, perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to the Tesla of RVs.
The problem with EVs and towing is a subject that we’ve covered before. EVs, much like ICE vehicles, lose a ton of range when towing heavy trailers. Car magazine camper towing tests have found that popular EV trucks will chew through more than half of their highway range if the camper is large enough. When Car and Driver made a Ford F-150 Lightning, GMC Hummer EV, and a Rivian R1T all tow the same 29-foot, 6,100-pound travel trailer, they all lost at least 50 percent range. The Ford went 100 miles, the GMC went 140 miles, and the Rivian topped out at 110 miles.
With an ICE tow vehicle, this isn’t a huge deal. You may drop down into single-digit fuel economy, but at least you’ll often have a large enough tank to maintain a decent range. And when it comes time to fill up, you can drive under the canopy of a fuel station and top up.
For EVs, the problem is two-fold as they don’t have a massive fuel tank and you’ll frequently find charging stalls that are just single parking spaces. Unfortunately, that means that you’ll have to decouple from your camper before you charge, then hitch it back up afterward.
Lightship is among a handful of companies with a potential solution to this problem. What if the camper could drive itself, saving your EV’s range?
Lightship L1 Design And Specs
Lightship’s debut product is the L1 travel trailer. Starting with the exterior, the camper has a design that reminds me of a Hi-Lo camper. A Hi-Lo tries to give you the best of a hard-sided camper with the best of a pop-up tent camper. When traveling, a Hi-Lo is compacted on itself like a pop-up. However, unlike a pop-up, a Hi-Lo has hard walls. The Lightship L1 is a similar concept, but with a design that doesn’t look 30 years old like a Hi-Lo. I especially love the large panoramic windows. Too many campers can make you feel claustrophobic with how tiny and how few their windows are. In fact, most of the upper cap is made of automotive-grade glass, and Lightship says that the production version will have rock and mud guards.
Parker and Kraus tell us that when the Lightship L1 is lowered into its travel mode, it is three times more aerodynamic than a traditional travel trailer. The pair didn’t tell us what the coefficient of drag was on the unit, but they did say that the shape was optimized through thousands of hours of towing testing to be as compatible with as many truck and SUV tow vehicles as possible. The idea here is that the camper will not tower above the tow vehicle like a traditional camper will, thus reducing drag.
This aero setup helps with the trailer’s other headlining feature, its drive system. Located under the sleek body is a self-propulsion system. An electric powertrain is found underneath the camper which houses an electric motor and a 80 kWh battery. Lightship is holding details about this powertrain close to the chest at this time, but the team tells us that this powertrain is powerful enough to propel itself. The tow vehicle will still be loading its tow hitch, but the Lightship L1 will be pulling its own weight enough that the tow vehicle, regardless if it’s ICE or electric, loses practically no range. Parker and Kraus found that a 300-mile range was the sweet spot as that’s about when you’ll probably want to take a break, anyway.
Thus, the pair say, the Lightship L1 hauls itself so well that if you’re towing it with a 300-mile EV, it should remain a 300-mile EV. And if you’re towing it with a 20 mpg truck, it should remain a 20 mpg truck.
If that sounds awfully familiar, it’s because this concept is currently being worked on by Airstream and Dethleffs. Both companies have taken camper designs, outfitted them with self-propelled EV gear with 80-kWh, and are marketing their campers as having similar benefits. However, Parker and Kraus tell us that their camper is different in a number of ways. Firstly, the Lightship L1 was built from the ground up to be an EV, while the competition is taking their characteristic designs and outfitting them with EV gear. Meanwhile, the Lightship L1 is also able to compact itself, which allows for the aero benefits mentioned before. The Lightship team also tells us that the L1 camper is also using a drive system that’s lightweight, though exact details will be revealed later.
Parker and Kraus tell us that this is the first camper built from the ground up to be all-electric with a self-propulsion system and purpose-built to help the tow vehicle retain most if not all of its range. This claim–so far as I can tell–is true.
Unfortunately, while the Lightship L1 may be purpose-built to be an EV camper, it thus far cannot solve the issue of charging. As I said before, charging with a trailer is difficult given the fact that so many chargers are pull-in stalls. With a Lightship, you will still have to figure out how to charge the trailer and your tow vehicle, or charge the trailer and fill up the tow vehicle. Parker and Kraus tell us that the company is working on solutions for charging on a road trip like a super-sized alternator for ICE tow vehicles or by using the trailer’s motor as a generator. There is some good news, and it’s that the L1 camper will be able to charge from shore power at a campground campsite. It’s also fast-charging capable.
The camper can also regain some of its charge through its regen system. This regen system works by detecting when the tow vehicle slows down, then the camper will slow itself as well. We’re told that one way the camper can tell when the tow vehicle initiates braking is by monitoring the brake lights, but it also has its own sensors.
Another benefit here is that the tow vehicle should be able to stop quickly since the camper can stop itself. Parker and Kraus stress that the Lightship L1 is designed to keep tension between the tow vehicle and camper at all times and that the drive system is designed to maintain control. The trailer isn’t supposed to accelerate so fast that it pushes the tow vehicle, nor will it brake so hard that it yanks your truck to a hard stop. If you’ve used a trailer brake controller set too high you know what I’m talking about. The idea here is to maintain the same level of control that you’re used to, only that the trailer is helping pull itself along.
Moving inside, I adore the massive greenhouse of this camper. You can wake up to some incredible views and if you want to bring the outside in, you can flip the giant windows open, just like with those Taxa Outdoors off-road campers.
Lightship doesn’t provide a ton of details about the interior as those will be provided later. However, the company says that all appliances and comfort equipment will be electric. Lightship says that your house battery is the traction battery. So, when you arrive at your campsite, whatever charge is remaining is the charge you’re using for camping. The camper will come with a monitoring system that will allow you to determine if you have enough battery for camping.
When you’re boondocking, the battery is topped up with 3 kW of solar charging. Assuming that you start with a full battery, Lightship says that you’ll get about a week of off-grid time with the camper.
The Lightship L1 measures 27 feet long, 6 feet, 9 inches tall when in road mode, and 10 feet tall when in camp mode. Fully loaded, it weighs in at 7,500 pounds and it sleeps 4 to 6 people depending on the configuration.
The Minds Behind Lightship
The Autopian’s EIC David Tracy and I got to interview Ben Parker and Toby Kraus. Parker built hybrid-electric racecars in his university years before spending five years as a battery engineer for Tesla, developing a new manufacturing process and getting the Tesla Model 3’s battery out of production hell. Kraus also spent five years at Tesla, where he led Tesla’s finance team and was a product manager for the first production Tesla Model S.
Kraus left Tesla in 2015 for Proterra, an electric vehicle equipment manufacturer perhaps best known for powering Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley school buses. Working with Proterra, Kraus led the business unit that applied platforms to commercial vehicles, where Proterra was the electrification provider for companies like Mercedes-Benz’s commercial vehicle division.
Parker told us that Lightship’s origins were in an entirely different industry. During Parker’s tenure at Tesla in California, he often found food trucks parked outside of the factory. Those food trucks were kept online with loud, smoky generators. Of course, those loud generators aren’t heard just at Tesla, but Parker told us that food trucks are all over the Bay area with their loud generators roaring. At first, this sparked a pet project to take EV technology and implement it into a quiet food truck.
Parker left Tesla in 2020 and decided to rent a Winnebago for a cross-country trip. In our interview, he told me how much he loves going camping, but during that trip, he noticed that campsites often have the same problem as the Bay area. People boondocking in their campers will often run a loud generator around the clock. It’s something that I’ve experienced myself during Gambler 500 rallies since 2018. Those generators are loud enough to keep you up all night and listening to one in the morning sort of spoils watching the scenery. Sure, you could buy a quiet generator, but those are often far more expensive than loud ones.
Parker felt inspired on that trip to change his project from an EV food truck to an RV. While on that trip, he started talking to RV owners, asking them what they’d like to see in a future camper. It should be no surprise that even RV owners hate listening to generators. And people who tow with their ICE would enjoy better fuel economy. Armed with his new inspiration, Parker went back to the Bay area and got to work.
When we asked Kraus about his inspiration, his story didn’t involve a cross-country trip, but the observation that the RV market is a colossus. However, despite hundreds of thousands of units going home with American buyers, the industry is dominated by the likes of Thor and Forest River. Those campers, as I’ve shown you in various articles, are largely the same. You get a box on a steel frame with varying levels of quality, but not much in the way of innovation.
Kraus joined forces with Parker founding Lightship in 2020 with a mission to bring fresh ideas to the RV world. The name and stylization of the company logo is inspired by the Nantucket Lightship. Together, the guys picked up engineers from Tesla, Lucid, Proterra, Zoox, and Rivian with the goal of enabling the electrification of trucks and SUVs by making a better RV.
Price And Release Date
Lightship says that the L1 camper will cost $125,000 at launch and it’s expected to be eligible for a tax credit that will drop the price to $118,400. While additional information on the living facilities remains scarce, this seems to be an aggressive price for an EV camper. For comparison, Airstreams that come in this length cost the same or tens of thousands more and don’t come with any nifty EV tricks. Lightship also notes that there will be a long-range version for $151,500, or $139,600 after tax credits, but specifics about that one will come later.
(Update, October 19, 2023: Lightship has produced more specifics about both models. The Lightship L1 Essential is the $125,000 model. It features a 40 kWh battery and no drive motor. You’ll need to step up for the $151,500 L1 Long Range for the 80 kWh pack and the drive motor.)
Lightship is expecting prospective customers to be people who want creature comforts in their camper. These people may have camped before but they definitely want to go exploring. A buyer of a Lightship might be someone who goes to Burning Man, a professional, or a tech nerd. The company is also targeting someone who might not be a typical EV buyer; someone who just wants something that’s easy to use and might not even care about the tech behind it.
As more people buy EV SUVs and trucks, this camper will help owners take longer road trips as they won’t have to stop every 100 miles. And for those still holding on to their ICE tow vehicles, they can enjoy better towing fuel economy. Basically, owners of ICE and EVs both win! Production is set for late 2024.
Hopefully, Lightship can keep that price because I love the potential that the Lightship L1 has. If you want one, the company is accepting $500 reservations starting today.
(All Photos: Lightship)
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