If you think the motorhomes of today are comfortable and fully loaded, just wait a few years! Follow along with us while we contemplate what the cool coaches of the next decade “” and beyond “” may offer.
By Peter D, duPre
Back in the dim recesses of history, when I was a boy, the future was big news. Buck Rogers’ sci-fi movies and the new series “Captain Video” were regular Saturday morning staples on television. In fact, the future was so popular that a newly opened amusement park in Anaheim, California, had an area called “Tomorrowland,” which featured futuristic rides and educational displays showing a wonderful life for us tomorrow. The man who developed the park, Walt Disney, also had a popular television series that frequently showed cartoons of what life in the future would be like.
Then in the 1960s, a popular television series, “The Jetsons,” debuted. We were promised that by now we’d all be driving flying cars, robots would be doing all the work, and computerized machinery would benignly run our lives. Life was going to be fun and easy.
However, things don’t always turn out as planned, and when the future finally got here, it turned out life wasn’t quite as futuristic as we had hoped. We didn’t terraform Mars. There are no robotic valets doing all the work. Computers didn’t eliminate paper and don’t benignly run our lives (if anything, they may have made things more complicated). And what ever happened to the flying cars?
The good news is that when the future got here, it became the present, and that means a whole new future is open for planning and prediction. What will life be like in five, 10, or 20 years? We don’t know, but we do know that whatever the future brings, quality free time and convenience will be right at the top, particularly in the motorhome world.
No surprise there. RVs have always been about quality free time. Although the motorhome gained big-time popularity back in the 1970s, it has been with us almost since the dawn of the automotive age. Early coaches (called auto buses and auto campers) were developed to make the scant free time of early 20th-century workers as enjoyable as possible, allowing them to get away for weekend vacations without sacrificing all the comforts and conveniences of home.
Mr. R.R. Conklin’s auto bus, for example, featured a canvas-enclosed upper deck; extendable canvas side awnings; a kitchen with a stove, an icebox, and a pressure cooker; a dining area; an enclosed toilet; upholstered fold-down seats that converted to beds; and privacy curtains for the windows. It may sound a bit quaint by today’s standards, but for 1915 it featured all the conveniences of a modern motorhome “” even if they were somewhat crude by comparison.
Even though Mr. Conklin would recognize a modern motor coach and see the comparisons with his relic, I’ll bet he would be blown away by all the futuristic conveniences found in today’s RVs. Hot and cold pressurized water systems, electric exhaust fans, microwave ovens, built-in washer-dryers, three-way refrigerators, satellite radio and GPS, VHS/CD/DVD player-recorders, power slideouts, and hydraulic levelers would certainly have amazed him, much as future RVs will certainly amaze us.
So what will the motorhome of tomorrow be like? As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It will have wheels, an engine, homelike conveniences, and be a great place to spend our precious and limited free time. There will be no flying RVs “” at least not in the foreseeable future “” but you can expect that the future type A coach will be high-tech and designed to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs while increasing comfort and convenience.
Following are more ideas culled from my research, mixed with a bit of imagination. Come along with me as we take a journey into the future.
One area where future RVs may differ from today’s coaches is that they could be significantly larger. Lane width will probably remain unchanged, so getting much wider is not probable, nor is vastly increased height. Freeway overpasses pretty much limit semi-truck and RV height, but a design similar to the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus is a possibility. A longer coach is also possible, thanks to today’s articulated city buses. With an articulated body, a motor coach can be 65 to 75 feet long and still be easily handled by the driver. What’s more, the rear trailer section could be detachable so that the primary coach could be used in its short mode and the trailer section parked for use as a cabin. Furthermore, the trailer section could have its own generator, water system, head, and mini-galley so that true stand-alone operation will be possible.
We might expect in the future for gasoline pullers to disappear from the market. Fuel mileage concerns and high gasoline costs could possibly make gasoline-powered drivetrains obsolete. They could be replaced by turbocharged diesel hybrid pushers that offer greatly improved operating efficiency and lower overall fuel costs. How would you like to own a 40-foot motorhome that gets mileage in the 20-mpg range or better? Well, with the coming improvements in diesel and hybrid technology, this could be doable.
A bit farther down the road is the implementation of a diesel-electric power plant “” similar to those used on ships and locomotives “” to drive the motorhome. Currently, diesel-electric power plant propulsion is too bulky to be practical, but thanks to improvements in miniaturization and computerization, this will become possible. Think about it: you already have an auxiliary generator that runs on diesel fuel. With a diesel-electric power plant, the auxiliary generator becomes superfluous (giving you more storage room), because the power plant supplies all the electricity you will ever need to operate the unit. Combine hybrid technology with the diesel-electric power plant by installing electric charging motors on each axle, and fuel costs drop dramatically, making full-time RVing on a fixed income more affordable. Furthermore, the availability of biodiesel fuels will become more prevalent, reducing operating costs even more.
The implementation of hybrid/diesel power plants also could mean that the heavy six-speed automatic transmission will no longer be needed. In the future, a continuously variable transmission, similar in design to the one used in the Toyota Prius hybrid, could mean a significant weight savings and add to overall fuel economy.
A change in chassis design and material also could contribute to weight savings. Currently, steel is used because it is affordable as well as strong; it resists torsioning and is able to carry heavy loads. In the future, new materials such as plastic/steel composite or structural aluminum will make it possible to have a stronger, stiffer, and lighter chassis. Plastic/steel composite, by the way, is already being used in the auto industry to make stronger, quieter fenders that weigh less, and it is only a matter of time before this material is used on bigger, heavier-duty component parts.
Another area of change could be tires. Within a few years, expect to see high-mileage, low-profile, run-flat bus/RV tires that have computer-monitored air pressure readings and automatic pressure adjustment that can match tire pressure to driving conditions. This will not only reduce tire maintenance and replacement costs but also add significantly to overall fuel economy. Many newer RVs already have computer monitoring of tire pressure, but real-time air pressure adjustment to conditions is still a ways off.
Ride quality may also be improved by replacing the hydraulically operated air suspension system with magnetic levitation, or mag-lev, suspension. This technology uses computer-operated electromagnets that produce positive/negative fields to maintain a smooth, self-leveling ride. The system could also be used to help level the RV in camp. This technology already has been experimentally used on a number of high-tech commuter trains, and recently the world’s first mag-lev elevator system went into operation in Tokyo. It would be possible, of course, to use mag-lev technology to completely eliminate the wheels, but since this would require a complete redesign of the current highway system, it is unlikely that this will occur any time in the foreseeable future.
Other drivability improvements may include drive-by-wire steering, which could eliminate the hydraulic power steering pump and much of the steering linkage by electronically connecting computer-controlled driver input at the steering wheel with the steering axle. This system has been used on fighter jets and airliners for years and on a number of automobiles, such as the Subaru SVX. Apart from reducing the complexity of mechanical parts, the advantage to the driver is that drive-by-wire is more precise than traditional steering linkage and requires less effort to operate. In addition, the system can be programmed to compensate for fluky input, so aging boomers who are plagued by shaky hands still will be able to enjoy driving.
Working in conjunction with computer-controlled steering will be accident avoidance “” a system of cameras, radar, alarms, and computers that will make it easier to avoid potential traffic hazards and keep a safe following distance in heavy traffic. A computer would select a preset following distance based on speed and driving conditions, and it would decrease throttle and apply brakes as necessary to maintain the distance.
External mirrors may disappear, being replaced with rear-vision cameras for the rear (as we already have) and both sides of the vehicle so that blind spots will completely disappear. A low-angle front-mounted camera would help drivers to avoid hazards, kids, and pets when close-quarter maneuvering, and a radar alarm would activate if anything came too close to the RV’s front, sides, or rear. Radar-type systems are already used on many RVs, SUVs, and trucks to help drivers avoid hitting obstructions when backing or parking. Improvements in the technology, however, will make the system operable at all times, and from all sides, so that passing other vehicles will be made easier. With blind spots gone, camera vision and radar will make it so that you’ll never have to worry whether you have completely passed another vehicle as you change lanes.
Working in conjunction with the accident avoidance system could be newly designed headlamps that use infrared waves to enhance night vision. In fact, you would be able to drive without actually seeing any light beams exiting the headlamps. Infrared or night-vision goggles have been used by the military for years, and the technology could be adapted for vehicle use. In theory, with radar and infrared technology, drivers wouldn’t even need a windshield. They could rely strictly on a monitor in much the way airplane pilots use their instrumentation when flying in the dark. However, windscreen glass is likely to stay, especially in motorhomes, to allow people to enjoy the scenery. Instead, the glass will be specially formulated and charged so that the human eye will be able to see what the infrared headlamps see. The advantage to this is that you wouldn’t have to wear special goggles, and you’d be able to see more clearly and farther in the dark. Traditional headlamps won’t completely go away; however, they will probably be used for in-town driving and as an emergency backup to the infrared system.
Another area where the modern motorhome is likely to be improved is passenger safety. Automakers already incorporate energy-absorbing crushability into their vehicle body designs and protect passengers with air bags. The increased growth of the RV market may eventually cause federal regulators to demand similar design changes on RVs. In addition, fire protection will be significantly improved. Built-in fire-suppression systems and fireproof, structural plastic composite body panels (inside and out) will improve fire resistance.
Comfort and Convenience
When it comes to general appearance, don’t expect to see many changes to the RV interior. It will pretty much look the way it does now, except for changes in style and slight improvements in layout. That is not to say, however, that there won’t be revolutionary improvement to comfort and convenience.
Let’s start with the exterior convenience features. Instead of a slide-out or tip-out entry stair, look for an automatically retracting ramp that is activated by a key fob similar to the one you use to open your car. Ramps are generally easier than stairs to walk up and allow improved access for physically impaired persons.
Then there is security. In addition to electrically operated remote locking, a palm print identification pad may be located near each entrance to identify those with access. This way if you lose your key fob, you can still gain entrance to the RV. In addition, palm print identification allows different levels of access, so while you will be able to enter the unit and start the engine, your children will only be able to get into areas and systems of the motorhome that you allow them to access. They might be able to use the Wi-Fi computer system or watch satellite TV, for example, but wouldn’t be allowed to start the engine, or have access to certain storage compartments or the master suite.
Inside the motorhome, voice activation of environmental systems would be immediate. Calling out command words such as “lights,” “air conditioning,” or “heat” would instantly activate the called-on system to preset levels. If the preset level is not what you want, you would be able to change it. So, if you call for lights and find them too bright, you would simply say “lower lights” and they would dim. You would also be able to open the windows, vents, curtains, and even the electrically charged privacy glass simply by giving the correct verbal command. Both of these technologies exist today but are not currently used in RV manufacturing. Voice-command environmental controls are used in high-end homes, and electrically charged privacy glass is most often seen in high-end yachts and nightclub rest rooms to provide privacy when they are occupied. While this technology is likely to be used in the RV bathroom initially, it could also be used for the coach windows to provide complete privacy anytime day or night, as long as the vehicle is not in motion (except the bathroom).
Environmental comfort could also be assured by such niceties as energy-saving, cool-burning, and daylight-correct fluorescent lights; HEPA-filtered heating and air-conditioning; and cyclonic exhaust that can clear steam, cooking odors, and stale air from the unit in seconds.
One of my least favorite maintenance chores, namely emptying the holding tanks, will no longer be a hassle in my envisioned future. Improved filtration will clean the gray water back to drinking-water purity and electric incineration of waste will completely eliminate the need for black-water holding tanks. Both of these technologies exist now. Submarines and spacecraft already recycle water through filtration, and incineration toilets are used in environmentally sensitive areas where septic systems are problematic. A friend of mine has one in his cabin and reports that the only maintenance required is to empty the ash drawer every few months. This is not only environmentally friendlier (the ash can be used as compost), it eliminates the need for treating and pumping waste, plus it opens up additional storage area under the motorhome chassis.
Cooking in the future coach will also change, because stoves will disappear. We will still have microwave-convection ovens, but stovetop cooking will be done right on the countertop. We already have conductive, flat-surface stoves in homes, but they are separate units that need to be turned on manually. Conductive countertops would leave plenty of kitchen workspace and would only heat up when a special pot/pan was placed on them. Placing the pot/pan off-center on a symbol in the counter would regulate heat levels. Best of all, you could cook and cut on the same surface at the same time. Only the area directly under the pan would heat. If you need more prep area, simply sliding the pot to another spot on the counter would instantaneously move the heat with the pot. Again, this is current technology, but it is only being applied in limited applications because of costs. In a few years, however, this safe and energy-saving technology could become commonplace.
If there is one thing even a 75-foot RV can always use, it is more space. The advent of slideouts nearly 20 years ago certainly opened up living space in the modern motorhome and will continue to do so in the future. It will be common for future coaches to have slideouts on both sides. This will open up a minimum of 5 linear feet across the width and, since some units will also unfold as they slide out, an area of living room proportion will be accessible to everyone who is parked in a wide enough pull-through. But gaining more interior room is as much about maximizing existing space as it is about adding more space, so improved space utilization will continue. We have had sofas and dinettes that do double duty as beds; miniature washer-dryers; and compact bathrooms for years. On-demand water heaters, flat-screen computers and TVs, compact DVD players, and flip phones are already giving us more usable space in our RVs. Look for this trend to continue even as improved interior design technology opens up more living space while adding more passenger comfort.
If there is one thing I have learned while researching this article, it is that the future motorhome will depend heavily on today’s technology. Virtually all of the technology discussed in this piece already exists and is being used in a variety of industries, from aerospace and marine to high-end construction and big business. So why isn’t it being utilized in the motorhome industry? Well, it is not being used for the same reasons much of the existing technology of Mr. Conklin’s day didn’t appear in his auto bus. Those reasons are size and cost.
Early autos and auto buses didn’t have radios because they were just too large to fit in the limited spaces until technology allowed us to make them smaller. Large also means costly and, because early radios were so big, there wasn’t much of a demand for them in the automobile. As both cars and radios became more popular, manufacturing costs began to fall, which allowed more money to be spent on developing compact technologies that would be affordable and meet consumer expectations. The same is true for both today’s and tomorrow’s motorhome. Not long ago, radial tires weren’t available on big trucks, buses, or RVs. But then technological and manufacturing breakthroughs, combined with consumer demand, made them economical to produce in relatively low numbers (compared against cars), and now they are commonplace.
This process often takes time and it hasn’t been unusual for 10 or even 20 years to go by before a new invention or technology trickles down to RV use. Over the past few years, however, a number of things have happened that will drastically speed up the technology transfer. First off, there is a burgeoning population of retirees with significant amounts of disposable income in their hands. Retiring baby boomers are active and like to use high-tech gadgets. In addition, they are very vocal about their desires. Also, an unstable world situation means that many of these folks are now vacationing in North America instead of visiting foreign countries. This means that motorhome sales will continue to increase and that consumers will demand that manufacturers start offering all the modern conveniences they want.
Finally, rising fuel costs and changes in federal energy and safety policies could push chassis and coach builders alike to find ways to make RVs safer, more fuel efficient, and less expensive to operate. Together, these factors add up to tomorrow’s motorhome. In short, the future is now. All we have to do is ask for it. Perhaps Albert Einstein summed it up best when he said, “I never think about the future. It comes soon enough.” Maybe so, but I still want to know what happened to those flying cars we all were promised.