How One Manufacturing CEO Embraced The Electric Revolution

Airstream’s Wheeler responded to customers, corporate partners and the zeitgeist in pivoting RV maker into eStream concept.

It only took Airstream about a year to put together its concept eStream all-electric trailer, which the iconic brand unveiled last week in one of the RV industry’s first volleys in response to rising expectations of electrification of its future vehicles.

CEO Bob Wheeler helped develop the initiative and has begun leading Airstream down a path that is supposed to put the first e-Airstream on the market within a few years, building the new versions alongside traditionally powered Airstream trailers in the company’s sprawling new factory in Jackson Center, Ohio.

In the process, Wheeler is leaving markers for other manufacturing CEOs in an ever-expanding number of industries who are reckoning with the demands and opportunities behind the nascent but still uncertain proposition of a future transportation system built on electric propulsion.

As so much else at Airstream (see “’Always Go To Them’”), the brand’s response began with concerns about its customers.

“There really was no epiphany or bolt from the blue on this, but it was the result of our growing understanding that the automotive space was heading aggressively toward EVs, and that was going to dramatically impact the ability of our customers to tow our trailers in the future, maybe 10 years out,” Wheeler told Chief Executive. “So we needed to get started down this path.”

Of course, Airstream trailers are towed behind vehicles, not self-propelled like a travel coach, but the company needed to respond to growing interest by its customer base in purchasing all-electric vehicles to tow their Airstreams. Currently, nearly all tow vehicles are gasoline-powered. But Airstream’s audience is upscale and trend-aware, and many of them are just waiting for the opportunity to purchase the first Ford F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck or new Rivian pickup truck that will be rolling off automaker assembly lines later this year.

“Towing a traditional travel trailer with an EV will knock your range down by 50% or more,” Wheeler explained. “That’s not acceptable for our traditional owners. Plus, we decided we needed to add some additional value beyond helping people gain back some or most of that range.”

Thus, the 22-foot eStream concept improves the range of the tow vehicle by reducing aerodynamic drag of the trailer by 20% through innovations such as removing protrusions from the roof, and creating an 8-inch narrowing of the vehicle profile as well as designing drive-assist motors in the trailer that actually move the Airstream forward to a degree with its tow vehicle.

At the same time, eStream features new technologies such as high-voltage batteries and electronic systems that promise to provide the experience of being connected to “shore power” electric outlets at campgrounds and elsewhere – even operating the vehicles’ air-conditioning system – without the actual connection.

Wheeler said that growing customer expectations combined with “voices and pressure” in the background as well as internal decisions to prompt what amounted to a crash project to create the eStream. Airstream’s parent, Thor Industries, and CEO Bob Martin pretty much simultaneously committed the Indiana-based company to come out with an all-electric platform from which its brands could learn, and Airstream was the natural choice to become the pioneer, Wheeler said.

“When [Thor] showed they were committed, we were the first in line,” Wheeler said during a video presentation unveiling the eStream. “We have a 90-year history of innovation and leading the RV industry, and we have a leadership position and responsibility within Thor.”

Among other things, Thor has committed to providing an all-electric chassis that it developed in partnership with ZF Friedrichshafen AG of Germany, with ability to scale from 20 to 80 kWhr of power and cover a wide range of vehicle sizes, ranges and price points.

Airstream also expects to contribute to industry understanding of how to build a new, all-electric line in concert with its existing vehicles. The company completed a vast new manufacturing plant in Jackson Center a few years ago that is dedicated to continuation of artisan-like, hand-built construction of its aluminum-clad trailers. Once the shell and chassis of various-size trailers are joined, workers crawl inside each Airstream and assemble the innards of what amounts to a small house, almost entirely by hand.

Initially, at least, Airstream will rely on the electric chassis supplied by ZF, attach the shell and assemble the inside of its all-electric trailers much as the company does traditional vehicles, but on a separate assembly line alongside its existing one. “We’re just starting to put together a plan from a manufacturing standpoint,” Wheeler said.

One more contribution Wheeler is making to the electric-propulsion phenomenon is a certain sobriety about time horizons. To wit: Airstream isn’t likely to build the eStream concept as a production vehicle but, rather, cull and refine the most promising technologies and systems within it. That means it will be at least a couple of years before an all-electric trailer comes to market.

“We want to be on the leading edge but not the bleeding edge,” Wheeler said. “Battery technology is getting better [and] improving pretty steadily, providing more power density for lower costs. We’re looking to bring the right set of features to market at the right cost and weight.”