For some RVs, the sky’s the limit

Yes, there really is a Winnebago logo on that helicopter.

Given that many, many RV owners still think an electricity-powered RV is the stuff of science fiction, it’s perhaps surprising that a decidedly more outlandish concept was dropped into a panel on the subject last week without any comment.

The speaker was Ashis Bhattacharya, Winnebago Industries’ senior vice president for business development, strategy and advanced technology, so no slouch about technological development in the RVing world—even if he was off by a couple of decades. Speaking at an RV Industry Association webinar on the development of EV-RVs, Bhattacharya asserted Winnebago’s innovation chops by mentioning that the company had introduced a helicopter RV perhaps 25 years ago.

The comment apparently flew over everyone’s head. But if a first-tier manufacturer could add wings (okay, rotors) to the RVing concept, surely switching from a gas-driven technology to an electrified one can’t be too much of a stretch?

Not that Winnebago actually built its “Heli-Campers”—later changed to “Heli-Homes”— from the ground up, any more than it builds RVs from scratch today. But it did partner with Orlando Helicopter Airways, which in the early to mid 1970s was buying surplus military Sikorsky S-55s and S-58s for various civilian purposes. Half-a-dozen or so were furnished by Winnebago with a full galley with stove and refrigerator, twin water heaters, air conditioning and a furnace, a bathroom with holding tanks and shower, and sleeping arrangements (in the larger of two models) for six. Also included were a color TV and an eight-track tape deck (because, remember, the mid-’70s), a mini-bar, full carpeting and sound-proofing, a generator, an awning and, for a few extra dollars, pontoons for landing on water.

Heli-Camper performance numbers were more than competitive with today’s rolling homes: with a dry weight of 9,200 pounds, the flying Winnebagos could carry up to 3,000 pounds, had a cruising speed of 110 mph and a range of more than 300 miles. Plus, of course, the whirlybirds could access the most remote and trackless wilderness, outdoing even the gnarliest four-wheel drive RVs in search of boondocking heaven.

Only two stumbling blocks prevented the Heli-Camper from becoming a ubiquitous overhead annoyance in the backcountry. One was the price tag, which ranged from $185,000 for the base model up to $300,000—or between $1 million and $1.65 million in 2022 dollars. Even in a world of luxury Class As starting at more than half-a-million, that’s a lot of dollars.

Then there’s the little matter of knowing how to, you know—actually fly a helicopter. Winnebago tried to finesse that issue by creating a rental option for campers who wanted to hire a pilot, but even that was a pricey alternative, at $10,000 a week plus the pilot’s fees and cost of fuel. And then, of course, there was the whole sticky issue of what to do with that pilot once you reached your week-long retreat far from civilization. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neither sales nor rentals really took off, so to speak.

Still, if Winnebago was willing to take a shot at flying RVs, perhaps it’s only to be expected that today it would be at the forefront of the EV-RV ramp-up. At least with EVs the customer base is considerably larger, the cost per unit is a lot more within the public’s means, and there’s every reason to think that the technology will see constant improvement even as costs get driven down.

And then there’s this: those quiet and exhaust-less RVs will be a whole lot easier on the landscape than fleets of transport helicopters would have been, descending on whatever paradise you’d found. There’s good innovation, and then there’s the other kind.

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More electrifying news for RVers

A pair of webinars this past week, one hosted by the RV Industry Association and one by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, underscored how seriously the campground world views the oncoming onslaught of electric vehicles. While campground and RV owners remain mostly skeptical, questioning the costs, range, recharging availability and environmental impact of a lithium-based technology, industry leaders are unwavering in their belief that the EV-RV revolution is already here and that the problems others see are either overblown or will be resolved in timely fashion.

“We are really at an inflection point which is amazing,” Ashis Bhattacharya, senior vice president for development and advanced technology at Winnebago Industries, told his RVIA audience. A “wave of electric adoption” is already washing over rental car agencies, delivery services such as Prime, UPS and FedEx, as well as school buses and other municipal vehicle fleets, all of which is normalizing the technology. The paradigmatic shift already underway, Bhattacharya added, is as significant as any ever experienced in the transportation sector.

Meanwhile, said Jay Landers, RVIA’s vice president of government affairs, state initiatives to outlaw internal combustion engines are giving the entire EV sector a kick in the pants. Five states, including California, already have voted to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035, and others are looking to possibly follow suit. The state of Washington, which had the country’s sixth highest rate of RV shipments this year, is even more aggressive, adopting a 2030 cutoff deadline. Furthermore, expansion of the EV charging network nationwide is being super-charged by $5 billion in federal funding approved earlier this year.

None of which, all speakers agreed, is to minimize the problems confronting EV in general, and EV-RVs in particular. “The (EV) technology is still more expensive than what it’s replacing,” conceded MacKay Featherstone, Thor Industries’ senior vice president of global innovation. Moreover, he added, “the charging experience is utterly critical” and still inadequate for RVers in particular, both because most RVs need pull-through charging stations to be practical and because they have larger power needs than EV cars.

To their credit, RV manufacturers, frequently criticized for shoveling out hundreds of thousands of RVs without giving a thought to where their buyers might use them, are at least trying to get out in front of this development. And there is little reason to doubt that a society-wide change is coming, and coming hard. EV-RV costs inevitably will come down as sales take off, as they do with any emerging technology. Alternatives to lithium batteries, using less exotic minerals, are being developed, and advances in recycling technologies will further ease environmental concerns. Similarly, ongoing improvements in battery density will continue to expand vehicle range, relieving one of the biggest consumer anxieties about EVs.

The weak link, however, appears to be the RV park and campground end of the product chain. The RVIA webinar inadvertently made that point when its campground representative on the panel—Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA—was so unintelligible that she had to be dropped from the screen, apparently because she was trying to link in from an airport. (And why O’Rourke, again? Is there no other campground industry representative who can speak to the industry’s issues? Maybe someone from the Yogi franchise, or ARVC, or one of the other large state RV park associations, like Texas or California?)

Subbing in for O’Rourke was Brandi Simpson, her chief of staff, whose faltering contribution was to assert that campground owners are dealing with “a ton of misinformation” about EVs and need a lot of education and guidance. Which, presumably, KOA is scrambling to provide. . .

. . . as is ARVC, which lustily beat the drum on behalf of EV-RVs at its national conference in early November, and again at an hour-long webinar a couple of days after RVIA’s face-to-face. Pitched as “a recap of the best” of the conference for those who might have been unable to attend, the session inexplicably ignored the most contentious convention issue—a proposal to adopt industry-wide “standards”—while devoting the majority of its time to further promoting the idea that campgrounds need to get on the EV bandwagon, starting with the installation of EV chargers.

All of which is undeniably true, but far more nuanced and with many more questions than have been answered to date. For example: both webinars referenced possible tax breaks and federal grants to defray campground costs for installing chargers, while glossing over the reality that such inducements will require making the chargers accessible to the general public, and not just campground guests. Getting equally short shrift were any explanations of the occasionally mentioned “partnerships” that campgrounds might have to accept, whether with public utilities or third-party providers, to deal with licensing and infrastructure issues, since electric sales are typically a utility monopoly and EV chargers require robust additional power supplies.

(On a related note: one of the biggest frustrations for many KOA franchisees has been the parent company’s insistence on taking a 10% cut of all site fees—including any electric charges, even though campgrounds are legally prohibited from making a profit from reselling electricity. To the extent that EVs will increase electricity consumption at RV sites, that means even more unearned money transferred from franchisees to corporate headquarters.)

By ARVC’s calculations, electric metering of RV sites can reduce energy consumption by a third.

Indeed, the whole issue of who is going to pay for the extra electricity consumed by EV-RVs, and how, is still being sidestepped at the national level, quite possibly because there is no one answer. That, by itself, may become the biggest impediment to mom-and-pop campgrounds rushing into this brave new world. It’s notable, for example, that while ARVC now has an online “EV Toolkit” to help its members understand how to accommodate the new technology, the only guidance it provides for covering their costs is the vague advice to “consider billing for shorter stays, especially [campers] with unique equipment (large class As, EVs, electric golf carts, etc.), automatically billing those campers for the electricity they use. “

Presumably these and other issues will get resolved, sooner or later—once the industry stops talking around them. The RVing public, meanwhile, should brace itself for still higher costs, as a new electric sensibility starts percolating through the camping universe. Just as computerized reservation systems have introduced demand pricing and all kinds of add-on fees, the electrification push ultimately will result in all RV sites getting electric meters. Or as ARVC’s EV Toolkit asks, in a prominently displayed screen, “You don’t give away ice, candy bars or firewood, why give away electric?”

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IndyStar blasts RV industry big-time

Kate Mercer photo

Okay, class. Today we have a pop quiz–but don’t panic! There’s only one question, and the answer is multiple-choice, so you have at least a 25% chance of getting it right:

What do you get when an industry pressures an inadequately staffed and poorly-trained workforce into increasing output by almost 50%?

a) A lot of shoddy product.

b) A lot of sick and injured workers.

c) Record industry profits.

d) All of the above.

If you answered d), congratulations! You’ve just described Elkhart, Indiana, which is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades, Elkhart has been ravaged by the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The result, as documented October 19 by the Indianapolis Star in a damning 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series, is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs, even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins. Covid drove an unexpected surge in demand for RVs, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But Covid also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers, even as they were being pushed to increase production by almost 50%.

Two results were inevitable. One was a volley of Covid-19 complaints to the underfunded, undermanned and industry-friendly Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which responded not with inspections but with requests to employers to submit documents “proving” they were following Covid-19 safety protocols. Indeed, IOSHA’s response was so perfunctory that it physically inspected only 44 of more than 6,000 Covid-related complaints state-wide–the worst inspection rate in the U.S.–including just two in Elkhart County, neither involving major RV makers. The county eventually recorded nearly 700 Covid deaths.

But as the Star also found, problems in the RV plants had been brewing long before the epidemic, which the virus only exacerbated. “Workers told Indy Star about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories,” the Star reported. “Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin or Adderall–even methamphetamine–to keep up with the pace.”

The other predictable result was that as the work pace picked up–one Winnebago employee said he went from working on 16 RVs a day to 36 during the pandemic–the products coming off the line were increasingly substandard. Ron Burdge, an Ohio attorney who has been suing RV manufacturers for years over defective products, told the Star that RV quality had been declining for at least 15 years prior to the pandemic, but took a nosedive once it hit. Record-setting recall numbers bear him out. Companies owned by Thor Industries recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year alone, while Forest River–a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway–recalled nearly 200,000 and Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000.

“All are among the highest for each company in the last five years,” the Star reported. “Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure and poorly installed awnings.” One example it offered of the life-threatening dangers unwitting RV buyers have been accepting: an Oregon family that purchased a 40-foot Heartland Road Warrior for more than $100,000, only to have it burst into flame in Montana on the return trip home, totaling it and the tow vehicle. The cause appears to have been faulty wiring in the fifth-wheel’s electrical panel, yet as the Star observed, RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work.

Industry response to the Star’s findings, grim as they are, thus far consists either of stonewalling or of denying there is a problem in the first place. Thor Industries responded to the newspaper’s requests for comment by claiming the quality of its units had actually improved, even as it was making more of them, as evidenced by a lower level of warranty claims–without acknowledging not just this year’s 156,000 recalls, but the 371,384 recalls it had in 2021. Forest River, meanwhile, didn’t respond at all to the Star’s requests for comment, while Winnebago declined to answer the newspaper’s questions about quality issues.

The industry overall seems to be hoping the Star’s blockbuster series will sink out of sight. RV PRO, an online site “for the RV professional,” ran a terse and nonspecific news item about the series on the day it was published, much of it devoted to quoting an equally nonspecific response from the RV Industry Association, the trade association for RV manufacturers. Lamenting that it had been answering the Star’s questions for nearly a year, “emphasizing the high priority the RV industry places on workplace safety and the safety of our products,” the RVIA insisted that “protecting the safety of these valued employees is of paramount importance to our industry.”

RVIA’s own website, however, has none of that. Indeed, at this writing, the RVIA website makess no mention at all of the IndyStar story and its withering critique.

Putting an ironic frosting on the cake, so to speak, it must be noted that Winnebago Industries held a previously scheduled earnings call at 10 a.m. October 19, even as the Star’s report was being published online. Business was gang-busters, financial investors and analysts were told: fourth-quarter net revenues were up 14%, year over year, for a gross profit of $210.4 million. Net revenues for the year were $5 billion, for a record gross margin of 18.7%.

No questions were asked–and no information was given–about workforce or production issues. Chief financial officer Bryan Hughes, however, did offer the observation that “the company and our culture are successful because all our employees care deeply about our end customers, strategic business partners and each other.”

[The full Indianapolis Star series can be accessed here, but readers should note that virtually all of it is behind a paywall–non-subscribers will instead be shown a graphic novel that capsulizes some of the reporting, followed by an invitation to subscribe. The good news is that an introductory subscription can be had for just $1, with subsequent cancellation always an option.]

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