What is a recreational vehicle’s mission? What does the buyer expect from his camper or caravan, what are his expectations, hopes? What is the meeting point between the inspiration of those who design a vehicle, the manual skills of those who assemble it, the passion and the legitimate aspirations of anyone who invests money to buy it?
Words Michel Vuillermoz
In order to understand what the mission of a recreational vehicle is, we need to understand first what a recreational vehicle is today. Technically speaking, it is a vehicle based on a commercial vehicles-derived chassis, fitted with a superstructure designed to deliver, in the automotive form, the endowments of a normal house. All according to the strict automotive sector’s guidelines. Besides, the recreational vehicle is basically a personal empowerment tool: campers and caravans perform the functions of a normal house, but are not tied to a fixed location, thus allowing their users to continuously change their destination. Therefore, they enable them to live intensely the places they are crossing, immersing themselves in and facing unknown situations. The recreational vehicle opens a window on the world, as it allows to mix our daily life with countless others, kilometer after kilometer. It is a comparison tool, and most likely one of the more complex items available on the market today. It is certainly not a space-shuttle, it is not pressurized, it does not fly nor fluctuate, but it represents the ideal point of contact between what is mobile – the motor vehicle – and what is immobile – the house. It needs to have the safety and comfort of a motor vehicle and it must possess its style, design, charm, performance and sophistication. Conversely, the house must have comfort, independence and the ability to meet the basic needs, as well as safety, heat, beauty and customization possibilities. The combination of these elements creates something unique. It gives birth to an extremely fascinating vehicle, which allows you to experience the world with the comfort and the habits of a house, but a house that never overlooks the same landscape, because the views you can enjoy from your motorhome windows are virtually endless. The crew will entrust this fascinating vehicle with their most precious time, which people usually devote to themselves, to their wellness and relaxation. The time of discovery, holiday, explorations. A recreational vehicle should ensure comfort and safety, but also harmony and elegance. And magic, maybe.
Anyone designing a recreational vehicle faces an impressive array of constraints he is required to comply with: size, weight, safety regulations, interiors, components, materials. A vehicle must be ergonomic, rational, functional, balanced. It must be also aesthetically pleasing, economically viable, commercially attractive. Those who buy a recreational vehicle want it to feature anything that can fully satisfy all their desires and that can be customizable as well, being unique. The recreational vehicle production process is constantly evolving. From the financial standpoint, we have unquestionably witnessed to a shift from a market full of many independent businesses, strongly diversified and rooted in the territory to one dominated by a few large multinational industrial groups, oriented to production processes standardization, with branches in several countries. Branches that manage brands and productions increasingly less tied to tradition, know-how and skills, but committed to occupy any potentially interesting space in the market. This evolution has turned the hand-crafted or semi-crafted production into an industrial assembly, where each production unit is no longer dedicated to a single, but to several brands. This is what is called globalisation. Productive standardisation and technical and stylistic homologation, then, to manage ever growing volumes: how all this matches with the legitimate final customer’s desire to buy a customized vehicle?
Common platforms, identical vehicles
By observing the current trade and industrial policies in the made-in-Europe recreational vehicles industry, one has the feeling that we are proceeding by trial and error: brands are increasingly becoming generalist, trying to dramatically expand their offer to cover any possible requests from customers and sales network. Seldom they try to create something new that broadens the market: very often brands look closely at the competirors, imitating their moves. A sort of re-ingeneering aimed perhaps more at improving the dealers’ sales skills to ensure that the customer has his needs satisfied. Thus it happens that too often carbon paper and photocopiers become more important than screws and bolts, that products are all identical, resulting not only from an assembling implemented in one and the same production unit, but also from a common design and development. Identical vehicles with the same layout, design, size, vehicle, solutions, materials, components, positioning. Identical vehicles that differ from each other only for the internal furnishing shades, upholstery, adhesives and naming. One product, several sales networks, multiple samples…and you are ready to play. From a commercial standpoint, this is a flawless practice: indeed, we are talking about best results with minimum effort.
All this, however, devoids the vehicles of that magic that results from a brand tradition. The fruit of years of history, evolution, research. The result of the experience gained in the past with vehicles that you still can see on the streets: in comparison with them, new models resemble foreign bodies. If thrill is missing, if passion is lacking, the magic is lost, exactly as in the automotive world.
Knowing how to stand out then becomes crucial within any price range: we need character, brilliance, style and design. We need real innovation at all levels, in the respect of the tradition, of a brand uniqueness. The challenge is to renew ourselves and keep the pace with the times, but without imitating anyone. The challenge is to develop products based on common platforms, harmonising investment but without cloning. Brandind as ours a product developed by another brand is not the solution to fill the empy space on supply side: it serves only to create more space for whoever has actually the ability to invent something new.
Bodies and structures do not evolve
Invent, innovate, and experiment: suitable technologies exist and are at hand, the time has come for recreational vehicles industry to make the great leap forward. Over the past 30 years, most innovations which recreational vehicles benefited from have indeed mainly come from the components used for the assembly. First of all the vehicle, whose powers are more than doubled compared to the early Nineties and that have adopted the traditional comfort and safety systems which are typical of the car world. And then on board lights, increasingly similar to those of a normal house, let alone the heating plants and refrigerators high performance. And what about the on board lighting technology, entrusted to real systems capable of adapting to the external light environmental conditions to optimize and customise the vehicle’s interiors?
The innovation process was often left standing in the bodies design, in their ability to provide passive safety, in assembly systems. In comparison with a car world continuously evolving in any direction, from aerodynamics to power-hybrid units, from composite materials for the bodies to the active and passive safety up to the autonomous driving, recreational vehicle industry seems like a sphinx. Motionless, unable to keep the pace with the continuously changing scenario. A camper’s body has remained stuck to the design introduced several decades ago. Shapes have slowly evolved, often solely under the thrust of the chassis renewal, but the supporting skeleton has remained the same: in 90% of cases a sandwich consisting of a framework (wood, polyurethane or composite resins) and insulating panels (EPS, XPS…), with a internal (wood, aluminum or fiberglass) and an external (aluminum or fiberglass) lining. There are no bodies with programmed deformation in the event of a collision, there are no safety structures, a kind of safety-cage protecting travellers in the passenger compartment in the event of a crash.
Time is ripe for all this to change: it is unthinkable that a vehicle, whose minimum price can easily exceed 50,000 Euro, cannot offer to those who will use it the same degree of safety as a normal, and infinitely less expensive, car.
Safety is an optional
Often an overused term, safety sounds often empty as well: all the latest-generation vehicles, since Fiat Ducato, can be equipped (and often are standard-endowed) with the most modern active and passive safety aids. No-one, today, would buy a small car for 10,000 Euro if it did not offer ABS, ASR, ESP, airbags (4, 6 or 8 depending on the model), Hill-Holder and air conditioning system. And yet today motorhomes that cost as much as six, seven or even ten small cars do not offer these standard basic amenities. The ESP presence, on a vehicle that will travel always at the limit of its maximum allowable weight, and unfortunately sometimes even beyond, can make the difference between avoiding a collision or colliding with an unexpected obstacle. Between avoiding or having an accident, with anything that this may involve. Its presence cannot be definitely left to the final user’s discretion.
Standard constructions for standard users
The mission of a recreational vehicle cannot be, therefore, separated from being a cozy, confrotable and safe means of transportation. It must comply with the rules that apply to means of transportation, also having the courage to go beyond too many grey areas of sketchy regulations. However, a camper is also a kind of sponge that can absorb the overwhelming majority of news and innovations revolving around different worlds: automotive, domotics, entertainment, mechanical and energy, just to name a few. A camper can dialogue with your iPhone, enabling remote management of water and energy autonomy as well as the setting of heating and air conditioning. It may be independent from the energy point of view, exploiting high efficiency photovoltaic modules or lithium ion batteries. It can feature any kind of amenities, every possible personalization. Let’s think of the variable slide-out volumes, present for decades in the States and finally ready to land also in the old continent. Possibilities are many, but often remain unspoken, and campers end up looking all the same. A single, basic vehicle, a small number of interior layouts, standard components, standard construction for a standard user, typically represented by a couple. Low-profiles, pure campers and motorhomes aimed at two people, proposed by related brands. Industrial products, children of the same vision and the same pencil. And of the same idea too, i.e. to stake everything on the same type of customer, the couple. An economically stable customer, ready to invest big money in wellness, personal empowerment, desire to discover, explore. A customer who probably feels less and less the magic the relationship with his vehicle involves, as it is seen as a “normal” means of transport, just like the car. And if the vehicle in itself and for itself is no longer a dream, then the customer downgrades it to a simple holiday tool. Dream holidays, of course, but rarely on the RV of his dreams.