An overview of developments and challenges in recreational vehicle design an construction, with the technical journalist Michel Vuillermoz
Words Michel Vuillermoz
Innovation that excites is the winning claim of a Japanese automaker that aligns perfectly with the automotive world, a world in which innovation (including performance, beauty, comfort, safety, originality, distinction, research, and ecology) moves forward alongside developments in technology and electronics.
But how does one reconcile the frenzied rush towards innovation in recreational vehicles, given the unlimited number of components, whose developmental technology and production have, for the most part, remained unchanged for decades?
I believe this challenge plays out on several fields: the automotive, that is the progress achieved in the automotive sector by producers of camper shells, engines and chassis for RV; in on board domotics, the technological service, simplicity, practicality, and ease of use included in the vehicle; and creativity, the element representing the distinction between a company that manufactures motorhomes by assembling components furnished by third parties, and one makes its own motorhome, instilling them with personality, style, and originality.
The chassis is to a motorhome what a building plot is to a house: the component to which the automotive world transmits innovation. Although at times innovation comes randomly, as in the case of the Euro 6 engine adjustments, where some manufacturers are still today following Euro 5+, a great deal has been achieved with regard to comfort and safety, in both active and passive ways. For example, more efficient air conditioners suitable for much larger spaces, automatic transmissions (Mercedes-Benz 7G-Tronic and Iveco Hi-Matic ZF) worthy of the top cars, and a combination of devices dedicated to the increasing needs of a vehicle’s weakest point, the driver. ABS systems, complete EBD brake balance systems, Adaptive ESP able to gage the load (and consequently the propensity of skidding and grip) of each tire, driver assistance systems (Cross-Lane Assistance, to keep the vehicle in its own lane, Crosswind Assist to manage spin outs caused by side winds, Collision Prevention Assist to manage the appropriate safety distance (and breaking distance) with respect to the preceding vehicle, Traction+, Hill-Descent-Control, Hill-Holder, Tempomat are all tools adapted from the automobile, now available in all newly-registered vehicles and making an increasingly strong entry into the world of recreational vehicles. All with self-levelling suspension, allowing for immediate management and control of the vehicle’s balance.
The automobiles and recreational vehicle worlds, however, travel at different speeds: the significant renewal introduced with the launch of basic mechanics of the 2006 generation, so nine years ago, has meant, among other things, the introduction of CAN-bus electrical systems, the series standard in multicast buses (simultaneous information distribution to a group of recipients), that utilizes a line of potential difference as the transmission medium, thus reducing the number of wiring harnesses present on board the vehicle, and resulting in an easier, more convenient management of all the electrical components. Adjusting the electrical systems of vehicles with living spaces to the potential offered by CAN-bus systems started officially, though, only in 2011, with the installation of a common CI-Bus platform, based on an initiative of the German CIVD: a cooperative agreement signed by about twenty makers (Alphatronics, Adria, AL-KO, BCA, BPW, Buettner, Carthago, Dataschalt, Dometic, Waeco, Frankia, Hella, Hobby, KnausTabbert, Kurz Elektronik, – LMC, Niesmann+Bischoff, Reich, Remis, Sargent, Schaudt, Thetford, TopTron, Truma, Votronic, and Webasto) with the intention of developing a single data system for caravans. Developing not only electrical systems but also on board domotic components (from refrigerators to air conditioning, heating systems, and satellite antenna position systems), in a way that can be managed through a single, simple, functional central command panel, able to best assist the crew both while in use and during routine maintenance. A simplification that allows for a central “master” control unit that manages all peripheral devices, the “slave”, and that is already installed in vehicles by Hobby, Concorde and Morelo, and on Knaus Eurostar 650 SF caravans, the series by luxury concept makers Caravisio.
Advanced heating systems
Staying in the field of CI-BUS devices, Truma recently updated its very modern CP Plus digital control panel, by adapting it to the platform desired and developed by CIVD: a particularly important sign, especially when one considers that the Putzbrunn company, through its digital Control Panel Plus display, allows not only for heating and boiler systems control (Combi/CombiE/Combi Diesel), but also runs the Saphir and Aventa air conditioning systems. An all-in-one, user-friendly, reliable system, one moving ever-closer to the concept of automatic air conditioning in automobiles, with a central intelligence unit that can determine whether to heat or cool the cabin based on current conditions, thus maintaining a constant temperature. A similar idea is found in the newest Alde Compact 3020, with the new Swedish-made boiler dedicated to convection heating of auto-caravans and boats, the latest version of which was released in mid-2014, and distinguished by increased energy efficiency. This water-based heating system has already conquered the high end lines and is now starting to appear in the mid-range (Gruppo Trigano based on Ajax such as Autostar, Challenger Sirius, Chausson Exaltis) and on some models designed for Northern European markets (including the Itineo DB 740). Alde is agreeable not only for its ability to heat the vehicle uniformly, but also for its perfect integration in the chassis with heat exchangers and pre-heating engines that allow the engine to heat the interior of the motorhome, and, when appropriate, allows the water heater to warm up the engine with electrical or gas consumption, a markedly competitive feature. Today, Alde enjoys a trusted position among leading brands, which have chosen this type of heating system over traditional warm air duct systems. Among others, these include Pilote, which makes Alde available on every vehicle exceeding 7 meters in length, regardless of its level or sophistication of the model, and Laika, with a rich catalogue of new Ecovip motorhomes available in both the Truma and Alde versions.
Other domotic examples
Domotics, naturally, are not limited to heating systems: this is where the pursuit of innovation has focused on various internal components, starting with trivalent refrigerators, with Dometic and Thetford products available today in various sizes in order to best accommodate the needs of builders during construction; lighting systems, most of which are today fully LED and more and more equipped with dimmers and multi-function controls to manage light sources in different areas of the camper at once; as well as those accessories that are rarely part of standard equipment but which are hugely successful in the aftermarket, such as satellite antennas. In this field, the most modern automatic control systems are making more and more headway, integrated in only two elements (antenna and LCD television), which up until now have always been divided into three (antenna, decoders and control systems, and LCD televisions): the result is the possibility to directly manage every function through a classic television remote control, with an antenna that detect the channel wanted by the user and starts up automatically by selecting the satellite and positioning it to receive the signal. All of this in a few seconds, in a simple, intuitive manner and with a system that also frees up more space for other purposes within the vehicle. These are a shining example of the new Smart systems offered by the specialist Teleco.
Automotive, domotic, inventive: all things considered, this third element is the one that makes a true difference. In fact, the basic mechanics are standard for all outfitters (Fiat Ducato, Iveco Daily, Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Renault Master, VW Transporter, to name a few of those used), and, as such, the technical components that literally bring life to the vehicle. The only aspect a manufacturer can work with directly to distinguish his product is, in short, on the level of what he designs, makes, and assembles himself. This component more than any other marks the DNA of a brand, the distinction from others. This is achieved by following progress, passing from semi-craftsman to an industrial perspective, and having the courage to dare. Simplifying construction, standardizing assembly, striving for quality-testing criteria that reduce the need for human intervention during assembly phases. But note, standardizing does not mean producing uniform vehicles, but rather producing vehicles by following a uniform production process. Starting with the development of internal plants, the landscape of European construction, despite being wide and varied, has become heavily focused on a few internal measures repeated across almost all types of construction: the transverse queen-sized bed over the garage, the twin beds in the rear (above the garage in Southern Europe, lower and sometimes with full-width rear bathrooms in Northern European models), and the classic central bed that represents the evolution of the so-called ‘French style’ double bed, born in the early 1990s along with the spread of the first low profile coachbuilt.
The rear bed
Universally approved in France, the central bed seen some interesting interpretations, a trend rooted in the Rapido 640, designed directly by company owner M. Rousseau, bringing together all necessities, from bathrooms with showers to refrigerators, in an interior living space less than six and a half meters, thanks to a unique placement of the transverse kitchen block. A solution copied in the 840F motorhome and then extended with some modifications to the other products, including Itineo MC 650 and Florium Mayflower 65 LMX. The Pilote Pacific P 650 Essentiel and Bavaria T 650 Style take this concept to the extreme with a rear bed no longer next to the bathroom but with the bathroom centrally placed, in the living area.
For years the tendency has been to offer large vehicles, but we are now witnessing a reversal that’s bringing together discretion, agility, ease of driving and parking. The design is still one with a couple-based crew in mind, but in a more dynamic version that puts every aspect of the vehicle to use: this explains the constant rise of vans now seen everywhere throughout catalogues, which and can be divided into three essential trends: the classic multi-purpose vans, descendants of the Volkswagen Transporter; the classic vans up to and often exceeding 6 meters in length; and the compacts, which for years have seen the Concorde Compact as the dominant firm example, followed by recent proposals by the Trigano (Font Vendome Bel Horizont) and Rapido (Campereve Neovan) groups. The lion’s share of these are classic vans, typically with Fiat Ducato L3H2, 599 cm in length and 258 cm in height, for example. The two most in-demand interior arrangements are: the transversal queen bed with a removable frame to favor use of the storage compartment through the two rear doors, and the longitudinal double bed positioned along the left wall, opposite the bathroom and closet. Two classic plans that over the years have seen great success in partial versions and which are now starting to become available in fully integrated versions, with compact mid-range and medium-high-range motorhomes: from the new Laika Ecovip 600 to the Hymer Exsis I414, from the Knaus Van-I 550MD to the Dethleffs Globebus I1, without forgetting the Pilote Galaxy G600, Rapido 803 and Itineo LB600.
Upgrade and customization have always been winning elements in the automotive and are of key importance today for recreational vehicles. In a small van, Knaus offers the possibility to have or not have the forward bed with lifting system, to choose two types of bathroom (central or lateral), to select the rear zone according to one’s needs (single, double, or a maxi-queen bed measuring 2×2 meters), combing all these elements in a rear cargo area with the simple hoisting of the bed, without removing any components. Interesting developments, on the other hand, with regard to the low profile coachbuilt, are coming out of Poland, with the enterprising NeoTraveller that, starting with a Ducato L3H3, on the Voyager models substitutes roof and rear blocks with fiberglass, gaining an additional twenty cm in length, a decidedly more harmonious external look, and the benefits of smoother interior spaces and surfaces.
Among the classic productions, the new path is about upgrades: two or three types of interior furnishing, two or three types of flooring, a setup that can be enriched with accessory packages. At the forefront is Pilote, which allows choices in external wall coverings (fiberglass or smooth aluminium), the chassis (Fiat Camping-Car Special or AL-KO AMC), the structure of double floor, the style of furniture, three levels of internal outfitting and two types heating for every class A motorhome exceeding 7 meters in length. Less possible to choose but in any case worth highlighting are the Laika offerings for the new Ecovip motorhomes (here as well there are three interior designs and two types of heating for every vehicle), Rapido (large part of the vehicles by Elegance or Montalcino), Challenger and Chausson.
And creativity? It’s not about simply moving the bathroom position with respect to the central bed, obliging those who need to reach the rear room to pass through the bathroom—something that happens rarely in a home, and moreover should not happen in a recreational vehicle—but rather creativity is knowing how to read the spaces, how to position an emotional and functional mix within the interior, one that replicates the comfort and ease of a modern home. Not of a gothic cathedral, not even of a mountain cabin. Creativity is creating new forms, the capacity to lend dynamism to a vehicle even when it is stopped. It’s having imagination. It’s the desire to keep up with innovations as they developed and made available by the connected worlds of travelling tourism, automobiles, and domotics. And imagining the future is the only way to reach it, in any sector.