Interview with Ashis Bhattacharya, Vice President, Strategic Planning and Development at Winnebago: this iconic American RV brand is developing electric leisure vehicles, plus various other projects to cover important market niches.
Words and photo Antonio Mazzucchelli
Winnebago, one of the companies that have made the history of the RV sector, also has a division that designs and manufactures special vehicles, such as motorhomes for specific needs, and others that are not RVs, but which certainly relate to the philosophy of living on wheels. It has developed a mechanical base with an electric motor, usable for various purposes, but also motorhomes created specifically for people with reduced mobility who use a wheelchair.
To discuss the topic further, we interviewed Ashis Bhattacharya, Vice President, Strategic Planning and Development at Winnebago.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The all-electric, zero-emission Winnebago is a revolutionary prototype. How many miles you can it travel at the moment?
Ashis Bhattacharya: It can do between 85 and 125 miles, but the reason we don’t think that it’s a concern is that we’re looking at applications that don’t need a long range; one example of an application for this is a mobile blood donation van. It goes from the hospital to community centres or schools where they are doing blood donations. It stays there for 7/8 hours and then comes back to the home base. With overnight charging, it is ready to go again tomorrow. So, we’ve seen plenty of applications like this: mobile blood donation, mobile city scanners for lung cancer screening, mobile dentist office, pre-school library. These actually don’t need a long distance range, so those are the kind of applications that we’re looking at in the short term, and we’ve many customers for those kind of applications.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The future is going in the direction of electric vehicles, so what about the mid to long-term for your vehicles?
Ashis Bhattacharya: With RVs particularly, what happens is that because people use RVs to go to places which are remote, places which are in the forest or in the mountains, or places like that, I think we are going to continue working to improve battery capacity. Every year the technology is getting better, and the battery is getting to a higher capacity at lower cost, but I think it will still be a few years before you have a fully electric RV which you can take anywhere. I think that it’s still some time away, but maybe there are other solutions that we can think of, but we have nothing in mind immediately.
Winnebago has always been a technology and innovation leader, so we felt that if electric vehicles are going to come anyway, we should start investigating the technology and become a master in the technology.
Our chassis supplier is a Californian company called Motiv. They take a Ford chassis, the standard RV industry Ford chassis, they remove the engine out of the Ford chassis and they put electric drive motors, batteries and controls in its place. We have an exclusive arrangement with them for the RV industry, and in fact we’ve invested in the company, and so they can’t work with anybody else for the RV application. We think this is something we want to continue building on and finding different applications for. What is also happening is that in the American market, many states, particularly California, are providing lots of incentives to invest in electric vehicles. In many cities, particularly city centres, they have laws that you can’t keep your engine on for hours while you’re doing something, so we think that those trends will help us as we go ahead to build more applications; it’s pretty exciting.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The challenge will also be to make lightweight motorhomes; are you going in that direction with your research and development?
Ashis Bhattacharya: Yes, we’re looking at various materials. One of the things that you will see is that Winnebago motorhomes are seen to be very high quality in the industry, so we have to make sure that we’re not sacrificing the structural conditions of the vehicle and the structural integrity while trying to do anything else. I think it’s a really exciting time to be in this application area.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Winnebago has a division for special vehicles, doesn’t it?
Ashis Bhattacharya: Yes, we do. This electric vehicle is part of a bigger division we have called “Speciality Vehicles”. That is really unique because Winnebago has been building these speciality vehicles for 40 years. What we do is we take the shell of an RV and we industrialize and commercialize that shell, so, for example, we have a bigger air conditioning unit, bigger generator, and the flooring is stronger, so that you can do mobile medical or other applications. In this division we’re also doing the wheelchair accessible RV. That is a new launch we’ve done this year as well, and again, this is something we’ve been doing for 40 years. But what we want to do now is have everything custom-made, so if you have a need you come to us and we will design an RV. This one is standard, so you can go to a dealer and buy it from there. It will be like a regular RV that you just can buy and take with you.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Did you investigate this wheelchair accessible market? Is it a big market for Winnebago?
Ashis Bhattacharya: Yes. In the U.S. we have seen, and I have seen this in Dusseldorf as well by the way, there are about five million people using wheelchairs, there are another 11 or 12 million who have some difficulty with movement, and there are plenty of people who’ve been asking for this for a long time. So, as an example, there is a family, a couple who already have an RV and they have been RVing for a long time: one of them has some problem and they need to get a wheelchair, but they don’t want to give up the RVing lifestyle; so, now they can take this RV and they continue. And there are many young people who are either born with some condition, or people who have had accidents, or something has happened, so we see many applications and many people who’ve been asking for this, so we think that it’s going to sell well in the market.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you only developed one model like this?
Ashis Bhattacharya: There are three. Two of them are 30ft and one is 34ft. If you look at the wheelchair lift that we have, it can take 500kg, so it’s a really solid lift. Fitting it into a smaller vehicle is more difficult, because of the way it comes out and up, and then a door comes in front of it, so it’s a very strong lift. Sometimes, when people are in the wheelchair they might also need to have oxygen and breathing apparatus, and the chair itself is also heavy. We want to make sure that the person, plus the chair, plus any equipment they need is 500kg or less, which is ok, we can do that. We’ve also designed the lift so that the person in the wheelchair, as long as they can use one hand, can operate it themselves, so they don’t need a second person to operate it. And we’ve completely redesigned the interior.