The RV industry is enjoying an incredible boom as Americans choose to hit the open road as opposed to staying in resorts and hotels. Some manufacturers are using this time to introduce innovative concepts for the future and Airstream’s showing off what is quite possibly the smartest RV/camper of the modern day.
This week, I’m at the RV Open House in Elkhart, Indiana. All kinds of RV manufacturers are here, from the country’s largest conglomerates to tiny independents, and they’re trying to entice dealerships with the best fare that they can put on the road. I’ve found many awesome campers here, including adorable pocket-sized fiberglass trailers and fifth wheels with more than a single story and multiple bedrooms.
But the majority of the RVs at the Open House are just different flavors of the same thing. They take a box, bolt some wheels to it, and fill it out like a tiny apartment. You might see neat tricks like a power awning, a big bathroom, or a chandelier, but few features will really blow you away.
One trailer stands out as moving the needle on camper innovation the farthest, and it’s the Airstream eStream.
I wrote about this concept earlier this year, but seeing it in person among literal hundreds of those other campers really illustrates just how much potential Airstream has to change the RV game.
On the surface, the Airstream eStream is just like the company’s other trailers. It’s 22 feet of gorgeous aluminum that sleeps up to four. It looks cute inside, too.
Airstream wouldn’t let me physically step into its functional eStream prototype, and apparently, the company decided not to do any demonstrations during the Open House. But its rep did let me lean in. I love this interior.
But the interior isn’t the headlining feature here. Instead, it’s what’s below the floor that Airstream wants to talk about.
Located under the trailer is an 80 kWh battery pack feeding a pair of electric motors. Together, they make a combined 242 horsepower and 132 lb-ft torque. Airstream says that this EV setup has two main benefits.
The first is that the eStream assists the tow vehicle in hauling it. When you punch the accelerator in your tow vehicle, the eStream’s powertrain gives an assist. Airstream’s reps tell me that the goal is to assist, not to push the tow vehicle or even match the tow vehicle’s output. So the tow vehicle will always be doing the towing, but the trailer’s drivetrain will be lending a hand to make things easier.
This alone is a huge innovation. It doesn’t matter if your tow vehicle is powered by gasoline or by electricity, towing a camper drags down your range. There are now countless EV towing tests out there and each one has roughly the same result: The tow vehicle loses around half of its range towing a boat, cargo trailer, or camper.
Of course, that’s similar to an ICE vehicle, where hauling a camper can put a big dent in fuel economy. Even my little 1,100-lb U-Haul camper takes my Volkswagen Touareg VR6’s normally 18-20 mpg and sends it down to about 11-12 mpg.
The great thing about the eStream is that its EV system is self-contained, so that it can help any tow vehicle get better range, regardless of how that tow vehicle is powered.
This technology has been in development for four years, with German RV company Dethleffs (owned by Airstream parent company Thor Industries) and ZF road testing the E.Home camper.
The E.Home has about the same specs as the eStream, and as a test, Dethleffs hooked it up to an Audi e-tron Sportback. This is a vehicle with an EPA range of 218 miles. In testing, it and the E.Home drove 240 miles crossing the Alps, using up 82 kWh of its 95 kWh battery. The E.Home used up 74 kWh of its 80 kWh battery.
With an EV, this means that a road trip with a camper doesn’t have to stop at a charger nearly as often. And with an ICE, you’ll stop at the pump less, leaving your bank account a little fatter. It’s a win for everyone.
And that’s not all. Another awesome feature of the eStream is that it can park itself.
Parking a travel trailer can really suck. Over the years I’ve learned that parking spots at campgrounds and storage facilities can often require deep focus as you navigate your rig with just small amounts of clearance in just about every direction. I can slip a trailer or bus through spaces so small that I’ve surprised myself. But my parents? Things haven’t gone as smoothly for them.
Earlier this year, my parents bought a 2022 Heartland Mallard M33 (another Thor camper). The lengthy trailer hasn’t been on a single real camping trip yet because my dad damaged it the very first time that he took it out. It was also broken and rusting on delivery, too.
He was trying to fit the trailer into its storage space when bam, dad dragged the awning across a pole. Because of RV parts shortages, my parents have only gotten it fixed recently, just in time to put it away for the winter.
The eStream solves parking problems by being able to park itself. You disconnect the trailer from your tow vehicle, then pull out your phone. You can then control the trailer like an R/C car with your phone with a full view of the camper’s surroundings. No more constant hopping in and out, no more spotters, and no more damage.
And perhaps the coolest thing about all of this is that Airstream tells me that this is not just a concept. The company is committed to putting this on American roads, and soon. Airstream tells me that the timeline isn’t “next week,” but “next generation.” Put plainly, expect a wait of at least two years.
I just love that this is going into production at all. It used to be said that the technology of a current year luxury car will be the technology an everyday car will have ten years later. I hope that’s the case here, and that a camper that can help its tow vehicle one day becomes a feature that you can have in just about any camper.