Electric and hybrid-powered motorhomes are coming, meaning your dreams of diesel-fuel touring are no longer just sparks of imagination…
by Richard Robertson
Spiralling fuel prices have refocussed attention on electric vehicles: From tiny cars to massive trucks, the future of motoring is battery-electric and it’s well on the way. Included in that future is the promise of practical and affordable electric powered motorhomes, and while not yet here they are coming.
In August 2019 I visited the world’s largest RV show – the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon in Germany – not realising the world was about to change and it would be my last visit for some time. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the show was an unremarkable white Fiat Ducato motorhome. Looking like any one of a thousand others on display, initially I walked by and only later returned, almost missing out on seeing and then experiencing the future of RVing…
Beneath the white exterior of that ubiquitous motorhome buzzed a heart of pure electricity; a heart that for the first time can deliver a relatively practical range, plus zero emissions. It’s really the Holy Grail of RV development, because much of Europe and many other parts of the world are legislating towards a vehicle-emissions-free future. That future has already started in Amsterdam, for example, which now has six low emissions zones in which vehicles that cause the most pollution are banned. For motorhomes that means no entry without a Euro 6 compliant engine. From 2030, the entire built-up area of Amsterdam will be emissions free – for all forms of transport.
It's no secret that across the globe, commercial vehicle manufacturers are rushing to bring all-electric model ranges to market. It’s good to see that in Australia the move kicks off this year with the introduction of an electric Ford Transit (followed by an electric Mercedes-Benz Sprinter). Featuring a range of around 320 km, it will be very interesting to see if any RV manufacturers here pick up and run with the Transit to get the ball rolling. Initially the Transit is only available as a van, but by the end of this decade the market will be awash with electric-only vans and cab-chassis suitable for RV use. Before then, here’s a look at the vehicle I believe can rightly claim to be the first practical – if not widely affordable – production electric motorhome in the world.
WOFs in a Name?
The motorhome in question is an Iridium 70EB, from German company WOF GmbH. WOF builds neither the motorhome nor the drive system, but rather, it sources and integrates both, and markets the finished product. The result is either the Iridium 70EB Generation 1 or Generation 2, with the only differences seeming to relate to motor output and battery capacity.
Iridiums ride on a Fiat Ducato cab-chassis that German electric drive specialists Elektrofahrzeuge Stuttgart (EFA-S) converts. This is the company that amongst other things converted a fleet of UPS delivery trucks to battery power and therefore knows a thing or two about electrifying commercial vehicles. EFA-S installs a 105 kW/650 Nm motor and 86.4 kWh lithium battery in the Generation 1 and a 140 kW/730 Nm motor and 108 kWh lithium battery in Generation 2 models. Claimed range is 300 and 400 km, respectively. Charging for both is partly from regenerative braking and a little solar input from a 120-watt roof panel, but mainly from being plugged into a 50 kW CCS fast charger, other wise known as a Type 2 charger.
The motorhome body is by German manufacturer Bela and the Iridium is basically a Bela Edition P69. It measures 6.95 m (22’ 9”) long, has a conventional floorplan with front lounge/dinette, mid kitchen and bathroom, and a rear bedroom.
With the conversion done and body added, WOF’s job basically is to make sure it all works, get the message out and find buyers. How difficult can it be? Read on…
While the Iridium ticks the box in terms or size, features and range, price is another matter: Try €169,900 (A$260,000) for Generation 1 and €197,900 ($302,000) for Generation 2. Yikes!
WOF’s Man-At-The-Show, Dierk Simons, was obviously used to the price reaction from most people and so had an argument that goes like this: Motorhomes have a long life and one bought new now will be virtually worthless 20 years down the track because it will be so restricted in where it can go, if indeed it’s even allowed on the road in the new zero-emission world. And that’s apart from the fuel cost savings.
Given a standard Bella P69 starts at €43,990 (A$67,000) and you could buy 4 for the price of even the cheapest Iridium, I’m sure many people would agree his argument doesn’t stack up. However, it is only a monetary barrier to becoming an early electric-RV adopter, and I’m sure there are enough well-heeled Europeans ready to part with their Euros simply ‘because’. That’s especially true as the first batch of Iridiums number just 12.
On the Road
Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to test drive the Iridium and it was a proper autobahn-and-all experience. Dierk manoeuvred the Iridium 70EB Generation 1 out of the car park and then we swapped seats. I was expecting big things from 650 Nm of torque (electric motors develop maximum torque from rest), especially as 450 Nm is about the most in a diesel-powered Ducato. However, the accelerator pedal required substantial pressure and progress was more smooth than stunning, although it built-up nicely. I guess it’s a way of preventing owners from scrambling their eggs and other fridge contents at every start!
I must say that initially, driving the Iridium 70EB was a bit confusing. I’ve driven more Fiat Ducatos than I can remember and in many ways this was like any other, and yet it was like no other. There was no diesel engine noise or gear changes, just smooth, quiet and deceptively rapid progress. And as the speed rose it was only wind and tyre noise that increased; the cab remained devoid of mechanical sounds, making quiet conversation easy.
We made our way across minor roads and out on to the autobahn, where with less than 10 minutes time behind the wheel I was soon sitting on 100-110 km/h with the trucks and chatting easily with Dierk.
Despite the simplicity of the drive system there is a learning curve. It essentially revolves around monitoring the auxiliary screen in the corner of the dashboard and trying to keep real-time cruise power usage between 10 and 20 kWh/100 km to maximise range. With a heavy foot it was easy to watch the figure increase way beyond that and so driving the Iridium became part computer game as I tried to balance power usage against speed/incline/traffic/. No doubt newbies like me become fixated on the readout, but it wouldn’t take long to develop a feel for the vehicle and know it as much by instinct.
After about 20 minutes I steered us back into the parking area and pressed the off switch. On departure the battery gauge showed 68% capacity and we drove about 25 km. On return it read 60% capacity and 188 km range remaining. When you do the maths on both figures it equates to just over a 300 km range on a full battery, so the range claims seem accurate. In Australia I think you could tour the East Coast at least on the small battery without too much range anxiety, so in Europe an Iridium would be fine.
If I had to pick a word to describe the whole experience it would ‘relaxing’. I’d never realised how tiring the rise and fall of engine note and gear changes are in a conventional vehicle – even an automatic – whereas the Iridium just seemed to waft along. Perhaps that’s the greatest take-away for me: that an electric RV future will be more relaxing, even if the vehicle isn’t Jetsons-esque and autonomous. Yet…
Iridium Generation 3 was due to appear in 2020/21 and although battery capacity and motor output were undisclosed, it was also to have the ability to plug-in and provide power for your home. While the Brand’s future was surely affected by the pandemic it will be interesting to see how it has fared, when I revisit the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon this coming August (travel conditions permitting). I’ll be bringing a complete rundown on e-RVs after the show, as the industry quickly moves to embrace an all-electric future. Watch out for it…
Just as in cars, it might be that hybrid power makes an appearance in the RV market as a stepping stone between fossil-fuel and full electric power – or for markets like ours where significant distances need to be covered in remote areas.
Well known light commercial chassis and suspension maker AL-KO has teamed up with German electric propulsion specialist company, Huber Automotive, to produce new hybrid chassis for light commercials and motorhomes.
The Hybrid Power Chassis enables emission-free, all-electric and internal combustion engine hybrid operation. It combines a diesel-powered front-wheel-drive Fiat Ducato cab with with an AL-KO chassis that houses a Huber battery pack and an electric rear-drive axle. With a gross vehicle mass (GVM) rating of 3.5-5.0 tonnes, the Hybrid Power Chassis can provide up to 100 km of zero-emission electric driving, plus much longer distances thanks to its conventional engine.
The proven AL-KO chassis has been used for years to adapt some front-wheel-drive light truck cab-chassis for light commercial and motorhome applications. The front-wheel-drive design allows the unpowered rear axle to use simple, light-weight torsion-bar suspension that keeps the floor height low due to the absence of a drive shaft and heavy-duty rear axle with differential, as found in rear-wheel-drive vehicles. AL-KO chassis have been fitted to many Fiat Ducato-based motorhomes in Australia, like Trakka’s Trakkaway series and Avida’s Eyre.
The Hybrid Power Chassis takes this configuration to a different level, because its electrified rear axle, which has an output of approximately 90 kW, can be switched-on when needed. Battery power for the electric motor comes from one (or optionally two) battery packs, positioned neatly between the chassis rails.
In addition to its ability to operate in emissions-free mode, the Hybrid Power Chassis has acceleration and operating economy benefits common to all hybrid vehicles. Importantly, it can also provide four-wheel-drive capability when additional traction is required. The on-board battery system is also used to power motorhome demands and can even run off-grid air conditioning.
The Hybrid Power Chassis made its world premiere in Germany in 2018 and was given a limited release there in mid-2020. Refinements include plug-in recharging from mains power, while the rear wheels can be engaged in X-tra Charge mode, which means they charge-up the battery as it travels under power from the diesel engine. An enticing possibility for current owners of Fiat Ducatos with AL-KO chassis is the potential to have the Huber drive system retrofitted, if water tanks and plumbing permit or if they could be suitably modified or repositioned.
While there is currently no release timing for the Australian market, it should only be a matter of time until the first units appear Down Under and frankly, we can’t wait. In the mean time, check out the system operation in this Huber video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgRr_B_UuhU).