Converging where the open road meets the great outdoors, camper vans are popular for the convenience, open-road freedom, and immersion in nature they afford—but they’re heavy emitters.
“There are tens of millions of tons of CO2 emitted from RVers in the USA alone every year,” says Sam Shapiro, CEO of Detroit-based electric camper van company Grounded. Growing awareness around such climate impacts grew while Shapiro lived in what he called a “gas guzzler” fossil fuel–powered camper van in 2020, largely motivating him to found his firm.
Camper van life, at its core, is a road trip in an oversize vehicle; larger vehicles tend toward poorer gas mileage and higher CO2 emissions. As the global climate crisis worsens, transportation accounts for over a quarter of America’s carbon emissions, with most of that stemming from on-road vehicles.
Yet the marketplace for camper vans and other larger recreational vehicles (RVs) is booming, spurred by both trending #vanlife visibility on social media, as well as increased interest during the pandemic’s onset, when travelers sought alternative forms of tourism that carried less perceived risk to personal safety.
A segment of that growth is poised to be electrified, with the first batch of electric camper van concept vehicles and custom-build conversions now emerging. Big-name manufacturers like Winnebago, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and Thor are among those lining up to revolutionize the American road trip.
“The future of all vehicles is probably electric,” says Kraig Becker, digital editor at RV.com/RV Magazine. However, he notes, “The electric camper van space is in its very early stages right now, with a handful of manufacturers exploring options and testing prototypes, but with very few actually available to purchase.”
Becker adds, “The good news is, the three main platforms used to build camper vans—the Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Ram ProMaster—all have electric versions available now. That should allow more brands to begin testing and building e-RVs, opening the door for more models to hit the market in the near future.”
The camper van space has long been occupied by do-it-yourself individuals and smaller companies that turn out custom camper van conversions from standardized vans. Indeed, smaller startups like Grounded, with vans based on the chassis of a Ford E-Transit, have already begun sales in the United States.
Advances in battery technology are also helping to drive the electrified market, as are travel trends toward eco-consciousness and more familiarity with electric vehicles—which is especially true of younger generations, says Becker.
“As RV owners have started to trend younger in age, there is also a movement afoot to camp in a more eco-friendly, sustainable fashion. Younger buyers are definitely more interested in camping off-grid, but in a way that is easier on the planet,” he says.
Apart from the clear environmental benefits of eliminating tailpipe emissions, cost savings—with electric camper van batteries recharged at more affordable (or free) electric charging points rather than at a gas pump—is another incentive.
“These large internal combustion engine vehicles tend to be gas guzzlers, so one spends a small fortune on gas on a typical road trip,” says Shapiro.
Other leading reasons to cross over include quieter electric motors and cheaper maintenance compared to gas-powered models, as well as the ability to camp off-grid. But hurdles to widespread adoption of the electric camper vans remain.
“The charging infrastructure needs to be upgraded, EVs need to be able to charge more quickly, and manufacturers have to find ways to extend the range. EVs are also very costly at the moment, which puts them out of reach for a lot of people,” explains Becker, who says these issues should begin to resolve over the next few years, as technology improves and manufacturing ramps up. While Becker says that charging time for electric vans is not too different from that of electric cars, the range—or the distance the van can travel before needing a charge—is less, falling between just 100 to a targeted 300 miles for these first-generation electric vans.
Here’s a glimpse at the future of sustainable travel with five pioneering, clean-driving camper vans that are rolling out to redefine the #vanlife landscape. (Keep in mind that several of these vehicles are still in their concept phase; accordingly, prices and production dates are pending for most of them.)
As of April 2023, Detroit-based startup Grounded, run by former SpaceX and Tesla engineers, was the first significant electric camper van company to successfully bring its product to the U.S. market. Its G1 vehicles, based on Ford E-Transit platforms, offer customizable modular, Scandinavian-inspired interiors, with sustainably sourced birch finishes and high roofing. Other features include smart, app-based technology (including remote-start HVAC control) and solar panels that allow for off-grid adventuring. The company plans to offer its G2—which will more than double the existing range from 108 to 250 miles, this fall. Rates from $125,000; groundedrvs.com
American RV giant Winnebago is planning to enter the electric camper van market via its all-electric eRV2 prototype that’s likewise based on the Ford E-Transit chassis. Touting a modern design scheme with sustainably sourced and recycled materials, the company claims the van’s advanced vehicle battery system, bolstered by solar panels, will be powerful enough to allow for off-grid camping for up to a week. Still in its concept phase, the model, with a current range of 100 to 115 miles, is being actively tested in the field to fine-tune the van’s final design. Though unofficial, rumors are for the eRV2s to hit the production line as soon as next year. winnebago.com
Volkswagen ID. Buzz
Volkswagen’s iconic Microbus vans helped birth America’s camper van culture back in the 1960s. So it’s fitting that it is back on the scene for the dawn of the electrified age, with the German automaker’s highly anticipated ID. Buzz van—a throwback to its hippie-favorite days—readying to enter the U.S. market later in 2024. Where “old-school cool meets new-school fuel,” the playful, retro-inspired vans will feature bold two-tone exterior paint, recycled materials, spacious configurations, ambient lighting, massaging front seats, a sunroof, and a potential range of more than 260 miles. Furthermore, the company has already announced plans to produce an ID. California camper van for the European market, likely for 2025, though no word yet on whether or when it would be distributed stateside. In the meantime, expect to see custom camper van conversions from third-party companies and individuals popping up around the ID. Buzz in the very near future; Volkswagen also plans to sell custom camping accessories for the Buzz in the United States. vw.com
Thor Vision Vehicle
U.S.-based Thor Industries, the world’s largest RV manufacturer (and parent company of Airstream), is pursuing its Thor Vision Vehicle, an electric camper van that’s advertising a “best in class” 300-mile range (thanks to a combo battery pack and fuel-cell range extender) and tech-heavy features like custom app-based controls, a solar-paneled roof, voice-controlled amenities, and a “digital cockpit” for drivers, boasting a bevy of helpful apps. Touting a sleek design and plush modern interiors, Thor’s vehicle is built on an exclusive electric chassis developed in partnership with American automotive company Roush. A Thor rep tells us the concept vehicle is meant to be a “learning platform that will inform how the Thor family of companies create electric motorhomes and trailers,” so the jury’s still out on what form the company’s first-generation electric camper van will ultimately take. thorindustries.com
German automaker Mercedes-Benz is launching its first electric eSprinter vans in the United States later in 2023, with a range of up to 250 miles. The brand already introduced small electric camper vans exclusively to Europe, but has now teased plans to bring a new line of premium mid- and full-size electric camper vans to the USA for the first time. Planned to debut in 2026 under its next-generation Van Electric Architecture (Van.EA) battery-electric vehicle platform, most details remain under wraps. In the meantime, be on the lookout for custom-van conversions based on Mercedes’s eSprinter to arrive from independent companies soon. media.mbusa.com