Archive for August, 2013

The smarter Airstream

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Last week Elon Musk (of Tesla and Space-X) released his vision for the Hyperloop, a sort of Jetsons/Futurama-style pneumatic tube system for shooting people up the California coast at incredible speeds.  I’d sooner squeeze myself into a hamster’s Habitrail than that claustrophobic nightmare, but I do admire the spirit of Musk’s proposal. Knowing he wouldn’t personally be able to execute on the concept, he released his plans to the world in the hopes that someone else would take it forward.

In keeping with that spirit, I am going to tell you about the next big idea in travel trailers.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge that this is not my original idea (neither was Musk’s; it was an advancement on an old idea).  My good Airstream friend Brian first suggested this, and then I pushed it forward in conversations with Tom (an automotive expert and Airstreamer), and then I realized two things:

  • I’m no Elon Musk
  • It’s a pretty wild idea

But I like it, and I hope you will too.  Here’s the elevator pitch: Imagine an Airstream that is impervious to sway or loss-of-control issues, can park itself in a campsite, has huge electrical power capacity, and actually improves your fuel economy when you tow it.

tesla_battery packIt’s possible.  The giant 85 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery used by Tesla for its ground-breaking electric cars is the key.  It’s patented technology but it is based on readily available lithium-ion battery cells that are getting cheaper all the time.  The battery pack is heavy and flat, so it fits in the bottom of the Tesla and lowers the center of gravity.  Having a low center of gravity is a big part of the reason why the car handles extremely well and doesn’t want to roll over.

Let’s fit one under an Airstream frame (OK, some frame mods would be required for this), and also instead of the basic trailer axle, we fit in the electric motor and regenerative brakes of the Tesla too.  (See image below of a Tesla Model S electric motor, brakes, and battery platform.)

Up front, we have a very clever ball coupler that replaces the standard one.  This coupler senses the pressure of the tow ball so it can inform a microprocessor whether the trailer is being pulled by the tow vehicle, is coasting, or (going downhill) is pushing the tow vehicle. It’s kind of like a smart surge brake.  Sensors at the wheels also provide information about the direction of travel, by measuring the difference in wheel rotation.

tesla-model-s platformAll of this 21st century cleverness means that when the Airstream is being towed in a straight line, and the tow vehicle is pulling hard, the Airstream can contribute some power.  Not enough to push itself out of control, mind you, but just enough to help compensate for the natural aerodynamic resistance of the Airstream, and thus restore some MPGs to the tow vehicle.  So perhaps your 20 MPG truck gets 20 MPG even when towing, instead of 10 MPG.  That would be nice.

When turning, backing, or coasting, the Airstream would act like an ordinary trailer, just spinning its wheels. When slowing or stopping, the regenerative brakes would put a little power back into the big battery.  Those brakes would be plenty strong and much more reliable than standard trailer electric drum brakes.

Now, a “smart trailer” like this would know if it was swaying or otherwise misbehaving, and it would be independently capable of correcting it.  Say goodbye to sway problems forever.  Likewise, it would be able to stop itself very smoothly if the coupling came loose, or the breakaway switch were activated.

When you get to camp, there’s another really nice perk.  Disconnect the trailer at a convenient spot and then use a handheld remote control to self-drive the Airstream right into your campsite, or a parking space.  This may seem science fiction, but in fact this technology is already in use in Europe with the Reich Move Control (start watching the video at 5:16 to see an Airstream doing this).  No more need to stress out over backing up the trailer into a tight spot.

Recharging is no problem at all.  If the campground has electricity, plug into the 50-amp connection and the battery should regain about 30 miles of range for every hour you are camped.  One overnight stay, and you’re charged up for another day of power-assisted towing.

Or, if you haven’t used up the battery pack during towing, it’s a huge house battery.  The standard pair of wet-cell batteries in an Airstream provide less than a kilowatt-hour of usable power.  The Tesla battery holds 85 times as much!

This system could even enable a sort of “Holy Grail” for people who really want to make RV’ing “green.”  You could potentially tow a self-powered Airstream a couple hundred miles using an electric vehicle such as the upcoming Tesla Model X.  Zero petroleum, zero emissions, and a free recharge at night while you camp.  On a typical 200-mile tow that’s a cash savings of about $60-85, more than enough to pay for a really nice campsite.

Of course, the campgrounds might get wise to this someday, and charge an electric surcharge.  I wouldn’t be surprised, but still it’s much cheaper to “fuel” an electric vehicle than any fossil-fueled vehicle.

This idea is definitely half-baked.  There are huge cost issues here, no question.  The battery pack alone would be in the $10-20k range.  Right now nobody in the RV industry is going to explore this because they know that nobody will buy it.

Also, there could be drastic regulatory issues.  Does a trailer change classifications with the Dept of Transportation once it is self-powered?  What sort of regulatory barriers might exist? I haven’t looked into any of that.

So I humbly present this idea to you, solely to spur your thinking.  Realize that the way we do things today will change.  Someday our practice of driving fume-belching trucks pulling “dumb” trailers will be as much a part of our past as steam locomotives. Somebody is going to reinvent the RV’ing industry, when the time is right, and I just hope I’m here to see it.

In fact, I want to be part of that future, so if anyone is planning to do some work with this idea, please bring me in as a consultant.  I want to be the first guy to go on an all electric camping trip, 200 miles from home with my “smart” Airstream trailer.  Don’t you?

Travels this fall

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I’m in my last week as TBM.  This weekend I’ll be riding a Boeing back to New England, and then driving up to Vermont to regroup with the family.

This year my TBM experience has been a bit of a bomb.  I lost too much time to illness, work, Alumafandango, and obligations at the house.  I had great plans to go for a tent camping roadtrip, which clearly is not going to happen now.  But don’t feel too sorry for me, because in September the entire family will be back in the Airstream and towing west, with a full month to burn if we want to.  It will be our last chance for a long leisurely family roadtrip for several months, if not a year, so we are planning to make the most of it.

For the last few weeks Eleanor and I have been thinking about the trip plan, and neither of us has come up with much.  Usually we are overcome with ideas of things we want to see and do on a cross-country trip, but after having made this trek something like 10 or 12 times, we are running out of major attractions.  (For us, a “major attraction” is not a theme park, but rather a national park, or perhaps a gathering of Airstreams.)

I never thought that would happen.  Are we getting too jaded, too experienced, or are we just not trying hard enough to broaden our horizons?  I think it may be the latter, so I am re-doubling my efforts to seek out the little things instead of the big ones.  To that end, Eleanor and I are planning to follow a pattern we used when full-timing: have a long term destination (like home base) in mind, and then take the trip day by day.  This leaves lots of opportunities for the unexpected, and often that’s when the most interesting adventures occur.

The process has already started in a sense.  In the past week I have been contacted by three Airstream friends, each of whom—completely coincidentally—is likely to cross our path as we head southwest.  Just spending a day or two with each of them is likely to result in some new experiences.  Think of it as Airstream cross-pollination.  We get a taste of their style, and they get a taste of ours, and together we discover things that individually we might miss.  It’s always a good thing.

So when we head out, our route will be affected by the routes of other Airstreamers, and we’ll go places we might have skipped.  This is tough on fuel budgets, but to be on the safe side I’m planning for about 3,300 miles of towing, which means a fuel budget of about $1100.  Seems like a lot but for a month of roaming I think it’s a bargain.

Eleanor is already thinking about getting the Airstream in shape for the trip.  She’ll be cleaning the interior and stocking up on supplies; I’ll be checking all the systems and cleaning the exterior once I’m there. Everything should be in good shape, but after a summer of sitting still amongst the trees and insect life of Vermont, you’d be surprised what little problems can crop up.  I’ve learned to start checking at least a week before any major trip, just in case I find a problem that requires a parts order or a trip to the local RV service center.

The Safari, by the way, will celebrate its eighth year on the road with us in October.  I have lost track of the miles it has traveled, but it is certainly above 100,000. I can’t think of any other purchase we have ever made that has given us such a great return, in terms of life experiences and pleasure. When it’s not our home on the road, it’s a great guest house. People talk about houses as “investments,” and RVs are just “depreciating assets” but I have to disagree. Our house is worth about 2/3 of what we paid for it (not counting the cash dumped into fixing it up), and it costs many times more to keep running than our Airstream.  It’s a nice house, but in the end it’s just a house.  Our Airstream is probably worth about half of what we paid for it, but it has changed our lives and enriched us in ways we can hardly enumerate.

So by my accounting, the Airstream is the bigger bargain by far, and we will once again prove that in our month-long saga with our recently-minted teenager.  She still wants to spend time with her parents, and I think some of the credit for that can be given to the Airstream as well.  Going out this fall will remind us all of those precious years (2005-2008) that we spent full-timing with Emma, and I bet we’ll all want to recreate a little of that magic as we roam westward.  I hope so.

Thinking of it that way, I realize it doesn’t really matter where we stop along the way.  The memorable moments will happen.  We just have to get out there and let them come to us, with our Airstream to keep us comfortable along the way.

 

Tesla dreams

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.

Someone to blog over me

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Hmm.. another long absence from the blog.  I can only plead guilty.  Life has interfered with blogging in so many ways I can’t begin to count.  But here’s a synopsis of what’s been going on.

The virus I mentioned earlier dogged me right through the week when I was supposed to be getting ready for Alumafandango, and then into the event itself.  The Saturday prior to the event I dragged my pathetic self out of bed, drove to Phoenix, caught a plane to Portland, and then rode four hours with Brett down to Canyonville to do pre-event work.  Sadly, I was in no shape to do any of those things, and so upon arriving at the hotel I collapsed into bed and proceeded to be fairly useless all weekend.  Brett did the heavy lifting, demonstrating once again that we could only do this as a partnership.

It was looking like I might even miss a few days of Alumafandango, but then on Monday things began to improve and by Tuesday when our first guests appeared I was able to approximate a smile and help kick off the event.  From there it was a marvelous week.  I didn’t have time to blog at all from the event, but you can probably read more about it from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various blogs (Casarodante, TinCanz, Notes From The Cabin) than I could ever say.  (If you Google it, be sure you’re looking at comments about Alumafandango Seven Feathers, not the 2012 Alumafandango in Denver.)

What I really need these days is someone to read my mind and blog for me.  That’s not likely, so I recommend following my Twitter feed (“airstreamlife”) as a way to keep abreast of events.  These days I’m much more likely to get a quick tweet and a photo out, than a full blog entry.  I am, however, in active talks with a few folks who each want to become Editor of Airstream Life, and I have high hopes that one of them will work out and thus free up some time.  And I doubt I will ever stop blogging entirely, as it is a very useful outlet for thoughts.  As fellow Airstream blogger Ramona Creel says, “There’s too much stuff to keep in my head!”

Where were we?  Ah yes, Alumafandango.  We had about 65 Airstreams on site, and people just raved about everything: the campground, the seminars, the activities, entertainment, meals … Even the wildfires in the area were blowing away from us, so we had virtually no smoke.  The weather was great except toward the end where we had some pretty exciting thunderstorms.  Three awnings were damaged in the first round of storms, which the Sutton guys fixed on the spot using parts scavenged from their new display Airstreams.  After that everyone knew to pull in the their awnings when they were away.

Brett and I ran a seminar in which we accepted written questions on any subject related to Airstreaming, which we called “Airstreaming for Newbies” but really got into some advanced topics.  Nobody stumped us, and I got a few good ideas of topics to cover in the upcoming Maintenance book, from the questions people asked. We will definitely do that one again sometime in the future.

The highlights of the week were many: Randy Grubb’s “Decopod,” Antsy McClain & Edgar Cruz performing on stage, the frankly awesome seminars by Thom the service manager at George M Sutton RV, the Saturday night banquet, the on-site wine tasting and off-site winery tour, several really fun Happy Hours, Indian drumming … I knew we had a hit when people kept smiling at us and saying things like, “Wow, it just keeps going!”  About 1/3 of our attendees told us they were already planning to come again in 2014, and we haven’t even announced where or when we’re doing it again!

Now I’m back in Tucson, picking up where I left off two weeks ago, and thinking about what’s coming up.  There’s a lot of work ahead.  Our event planning team (Brett, me, Alice) is already working on the programs for our February 2014 events: Alumafiesta in Tucson and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota.  We want to have the tentative programs released in October.  Alumaflamingo already has 100 trailers signed up, so it looks like it will be a big one and we want to respond to that vote of confidence with a truly amazing program of activities.  It’s pressure, but the good kind.

I’ve also got to get the Winter 2013 issue in some sort of shape for publication this month, even though it’s not due to layout until later.  It’s looking like a good issue but there’s about 20 hours of editing work ahead.  And lately I’ve been consulting to the organizers of Tucson’s new Modernism Week event (now in its second year) on how to put together a vintage trailer show this year.  They are trying to get about ten nice vintage rigs for their show in the first week of October this year.  I may do a presentation there on the history of vintage trailers as well, if they need it. It will be a great event to attend, in any case, with lots of architectural tours.

Back in Vermont, Eleanor has managed some repairs to the trusty Mercedes GL320.  It had some minor body damage from two separate incidents (one dating back a couple of years), and we finally took it to the body shop to get all of that cleaned up.  Little dings can add up: the insurance claim was over $3,000 thanks to a ridiculously expensive front bumper part.  It’s the sort of stuff that could be—and was—easily ignored but I hate to see it accumulate and make the car look junky before its time.  The GL has about 74,000 miles on it so far, mostly towing, and I certainly intend to keep it for a few more years, so it was time to bite the bullet and pay the deductible to keep the car looking good.

In two weeks I need to head back to Vermont and then set out with the Airstream (and once again, E&E) on our voyage west.  We don’t have the slightest plan yet what route we are taking.  All we know is that we need to be back in Tucson by Oct 1, which gives us about a month to travel roughly 2,500-3,000 miles (depending on route).  I’m looking for little things along the way to fill up our itinerary so we won’t go too fast.

This is a nice problem to have, after last year’s mad dash over the concrete Interstates. Slow travel is the best.  It won’t be a vacation, but at least it will be an opportunity to take in some fresh new scenery in the Airstream before we settle back into home base for the winter.  And there will be plenty to blog about!

That intolerable silence

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

The blog has been quiet lately, and I’m sure a few people are wondering what hole I’ve managed to fall into.  A friend once accused me of being a compulsive blogger, needing some sort of intervention and a 12-step program, but none of my friends seemed to care to stop me.  So what has kept me quiet for so long lately?

It’s just life.  A couple of weeks ago I was wrestling with my motivation to solve a giant problem, one of those huge problems that can’t even be fully understood at the outset, like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m talking about my very slow-progressing Airstream maintenance book, which I think is going into its third year of “work.”

I have to put “work” in quotes because I can’t honestly use that term to describe the herky-jerky progress I was making for the first two years, interspersed by long period of contemplation and (let’s be honest) distraction.  Like the massive jigsaw puzzle, I had found all the easy parts and put them together, leaving a giant framework with 4,900 pieces yet to go.  This was a motivation-killer.

I mention this because you might think motivation comes easy to me.  I don’t talk about my failures enough (people complain it’s depressing).  I wrestle with things like every human being does, and there was a long period in which it seemed this project might be just a bit more than I was equipped to complete.  Failure WAS an option, and always is an option even if you like to pretend it’s not, because sometimes in failure you can learn something that will help you succeed next time. Like, “don’t take on a 200 page book project if you really don’t have time for it.”

But it’s harder to abandon a project of one’s own design.  After all, who or what can you honestly blame for the failure?  It was a jail of my own making and I’d told too many people about it, so I kept plugging away, adding a figurative puzzle piece every week or two, and then suddenly a wonderful thing happened.  It was that magical moment known to all writers of long texts and jigsaw puzzle fanatics alike.  I could see for the first time the beautiful picture that my puzzle would eventually form.  Better yet, it was all so obvious now.  I knew exactly what I needed to do, and without any motivational struggle at all I found myself gleefully opening up the document and adding text at every opportunity.

Suddenly I was finding time to write after dinner, before breakfast, between phone calls.  The first day after the breakthrough I added three pages of text to a 30 page document.  The next day I added five pages.  The next, 10 pages.  By the end of the week the project that took over two years to grow to 30 pages had doubled in size to 60.  It was almost worth waiting two years to have that experience.  Breakthroughs like that feel great.

Alas, my next act was to get sick with a virus, which has cost me a week of productivity already and will probably take another week to clear up fully.  I stopped working on the book because it took all of my virus-limited brainpower to just keep the basic operations going (keep in mind, I’m still TBM so I’ve got to do things like grocery shopping and laundry in addition to moving the Winter issue of Airstream Life ahead).  Now, I’ve got to fly up to Oregon to help Brett run Alumafandango, so there’s another big hiatus in the book project ahead.

This has led to the intolerable silence of the blog.  I make no apologies, as we aren’t actively Airstreaming at the moment and TBM’s adventures have been sadly muted, but I thought you should know that I haven’t abandoned you.  No, quite the opposite, I’m plotting all kinds of things to talk about in the future.  I will be blogging from Alumafandango as much as time allows over the coming week, and upon returning I’ll have just about two weeks to get all my TBM-decadence done, so that should be fun.  I already had a bacon-wrapped Sonoran hotdog but that’s just a warm-up for the real goodies…

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine