For manufacturers, the road to electrification of consumer products can be unpredictable as well as arduous, but Winnebago Industries has laid out a roadmap for its first all-electric Winnebago RVs meant to navigate the uncertainties that lie before commercializing the technology and mainstreaming it in the marketplace.
The company based in Forest City, Iowa, revealed its first fully operational all-electric RV at the gigantic RV SuperShow in Tampa in late January, touted a zero-emissions proposition that runs both the powertrain and the house systems on electricity, provides up to seven days of “boondocking” in place while occupants live off the batteries, features accouterments made out of recyclable and biodegradable materials, and runs on an app.
“We’ve done extensive consumer research around the demand profile” for electric RVs, Huw Bower, president of the Winnebago brand, told Chief Executive. “There is emerging demand in the marketplace.”
Two huge obstacles loom in front of the fledgling electrification efforts of Winnebago Airstream and other recreational-vehicle brands seeking to get traction in the burgeoning business of electrifying personal transportation.
First, concept electric RVs will do little to help generate sales in the near term, which is a very real concern. After a decade-long boom in sales following the Great Recession, U.S. RV sales declined to about 400,000 last year, down from about 512,000 in a record 2021. Macroeconomic factors including inflation and higher interest rates — which interfere with the purchase financing that many RV buyers require — were largely to blame, industry executives say. But some are optimistic about a pickup again in 2023 based in part on throngs at winter consumer shows, despite talk of recession.
Second, hulking RVs as an all-electric proposition face considerably larger constraints than do automobiles. For example, they’re huge and heavy, challenging the most robust electric-propulsion systems yet devised. And because their purpose is to help people move around the country, or at least the countryside, the limitations on the range between charges, and the limited number of charging stations across the U.S., promise to undercut the appeal of all-electric RVs for some time. The prototype is built on a Ford van chassis with a range of about 108 miles, but Bower said Winnebago is working on a longer range before commercialization.
Bower acknowledged that Winnebago hasn’t disclosed a date for commercializing eRV2 or a price point for the all-electric model. But he’s encouraged by consumer interest in test-driving the prototype at the Tampa show and by hundreds of thousands of online views of Winnebago’s “electric manifesto.”
“The electric opportunity taps into the discerning, high-end consumer,” Bower said. “As a brand, we’ve always pioneered and led in this space with innovative products and a new segment of consumers. I think we’ll create sustained demand in electrics over time.”
Bower had some advice for leaders in other manufacturing businesses who are reckoning with how the electrification revolution might be affecting them:
Establish credentials. Suppliers often have provided technology innovations in the RV industry, but Winnebago has been making a point of investing its own resources and IP in the electrification of its vehicles, Bower said.
“We’ve built our staff from within and our own digital teams familiar with our existing ecosystem, and that gives us credibility in our space,” Bower said. “For consumers make this sort of technology shift, you have to be a credible brand in terms of being authentic around your value proposition and consistent with your brand legacy.”
Bring your market along. Long before it asks consumers to invest in all-electric RVs, Bower said, Winnebago will “reveal insights about the test case and about how we’re perfecting or refining the range in the vehicle, and about how best to trip-plan, and how to optimize battery life and the recharge cycle. We’ll become a knowledgeable guide for consumers and the trust will establish itself as we put together the use case.”