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Polk’s Top 7 Issues with an All-Electric Motorhome

Mark Polk, motorhome and motor coach maintenance expert

By Mark Polk
RV Education 101

With increasingly stringent EPA and DOT mandates, and new technology in sustainable energy resources, I can’t help but wonder how the RV industry will be affected. Mandates aimed at increased fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have RV chassis builders and RV manufacturers scrambling to develop new sustainable energy strategies for RV applications.

When I attended the 49th Annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, 2011, I previewed an all-electric prototype E Tahoe Type C motorhome manufactured by MVP RV Inc.

Opinions on electric vehicles (EV), as well as other types of alternative fuel technology in today’s marketplace, vary widely. I must admit I lean a little to the right on the EV topic, especially as it pertains to recreation vehicles. I am not against the idea, but I can’t help feel there is a long way to go before it could be considered practical for applications in RVs.

In the foreseeable future, at least for the time being, it looks certain this is one direction the industry is considering. Let’s take a glimpse at how sustainable energy technology could affect the way we use and travel in our RVs, be it good or bad.

Here are my top 7 issues with all-electric RVs:

1. When considering the benefits of an all-electric RV, I would be remiss not to mention how the use of electric vehicles can contribute to technological advancements, lessen environmental concerns and address concerns over the continued use of fossil-fuels. If our forefathers didn’t embrace new technology, where would we be today? But, I do have concerns as well.

The prototype model displayed in Louisville uses 96 lithium-ion batteries to power all onboard systems in the RV, and to propel it down the highway approximately 120 miles on a full charge. At that point it would require stopping for 90 minutes to recharge the battery bank. This 100- to 120-mile range is extremely limited for a motorhome, in my opinion. I was told that optional battery bank sizes would be offered; increasing the distance one can travel between charges, but at the same time adding to the expense, weight and space required to accommodate the batteries.

2. With a travel range of 100 to120 miles, one concern is locating a 240-volt AC charging station every time the batteries need recharging. This is the current recharging requirement for this particular vehicle, although the manufacturer’s representative did mention MVP is looking at alternative recharge options for the production model.

The concern for locating EV charging stations is especially true when traveling secluded stretches of highways that RVers frequently travel. Keep in mind this is an all-electric RV, meaning it does not have a supplemental gasoline engine to assist, or charge the batteries, as it approaches peak travel distance.

Electric vehicles (now I am referring to EV automobiles) are intended primarily for urban populated areas, consisting of short daily commutes to and from work. Experts are quick to point out, what once was mostly a rural America has manifested into a more urban America. This, I assume, is where the majority of EV charging stations will be available.

Unfortunately, the majority of RV owners don’t plan to spend their RV vacation in downtown metropolitan areas.

3. The weight required for 96 lithium-ion batteries, possibly more if you choose to travel longer distances between charges, can be substantial. The argument is, since the vehicle’s powertrain (engine and transmission) was removed, the added weight of the battery bank and electric motor is a wash. I would need to see the federal weight certification data before I am convinced of this. This added weight could severely limit the cargo carrying capacity (CCC) and gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of these all-electric motorhomes.

4. The space required for 96 batteries is quite significant, too. Storage space and holding tank capacities are valued commodities among motorhome owners. I would have to think that holding tank capacities and exterior storage accommodations will take a hit to allow the room required for these batteries. Limited storage and holding tank capacities, coupled with weight concerns, could affect the feasibility of an all-electric motorhome.

5. I personally don’t know what battery maintenance requirements would entail for 96 lithium-ion batteries. Again, I would think that improper battery charging procedures could affect the lifecycle of the batteries. I wonder how difficult it will be to replace a damaged or defective battery, and at what cost? The rep at the show said the lifecycle of the batteries is expected to be 10,000 cycles. At 100 miles on a full-charge this equates to 1,000,000 miles. I haven’t seen many RVs that traveled 1,000,000 miles, so that’s a good thing.

6. I guess we would need to consider the idea of a hybrid RV as well. The hybrid category can be split into two groups. There are hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). Basically, an HEV uses an internal combustion engine along with an electric motor and battery. The vehicle uses electric power to propel it at lower speeds and the gasoline engine takes over at higher, more demanding speeds and operation, and to recharge the battery.

The PHEV would require larger battery banks that can be recharged by plugging into an AC outlet, similar to an all-electric RV. In all other regards the PHEV operates on the same principle as an HEV, using a gasoline engine at higher speeds and operating loads. Because of the weight of a motorhome, larger and heavier battery banks and electric motors would be required in RV applications, compared to smaller electric vehicles. A downside to HEVs vehicles is the added weight of a secondary powertrain, which contributes to some of the same weight concerns of an all-electric RV model.

7. At zero emissions the carbon footprint of an all-electric motorhome is greatly reduced. This is, of course, an important accomplishment, in favor of electric vehicles. However, in addition to reducing the impact it has on the environment, an RV still needs to retain practicality. It needs to serve the function it was designed and built for in the first place.

It is possible that one day an all-electric RV will hold its place in RV history, but in my opinion the infrastructure, form and function all need to be addressed and in place before we move forward. Like old saying: Don’t put the cart before the horse. Let’s make sure we start in the right place and do things in the right order.

Unfortunately, there were no brochures or other print material available to augment the information on the prototype all-electric E Tahoe at the show. My conclusions are solely based on what I saw and heard about this particular EV RV.

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