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Airstream looks to electrification for its future campers

But don't worry, these iconic trailers will never give up their retro design.

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Airstream's Caravel is small, lightweight and designed to be towed by just about anything with a hitch, but that doesn't mean it skimps on any of the classic Airstream styles.

Airstream

Airstream campers are some of the most recognizable shapes on the road. The company's aluminum-bodied trailers are super cool, and their design hasn't changed much over the past 90 years. Yet even with this focus on retro design, Airstream knows it has to adapt to the future.

"We're really focused on the idea of freedom and range," McKay Featherstone, Airstream's Vice President of Product Development and Engineering, told me in a phone interview last week. The company has already developed things like its new Smart RV Control app, to make your 30-foot trailer more connected than ever before. But Featherstone also sees a number of ways where Airstream can support an electrification-focused future.

"If you're going to tow something long-distance, range is critical," Featherstone notes. Obviously, one way to immediately kill a vehicle's driving range is to attach a huge trailer to the back, and the company says aerodynamics and weight are a huge focus right now, to make its trailers slipperier and lighter.

Beyond that, though, Featherstone says Airstream is actively working on tech that could incorporate an electric drivetrain into a camper. "If the wheels of the trailer are powered, we can help the towing experience," he said. Specifically, Featherstone says Airstream is experimenting with mounting an electric motor on the trailer's axle, which could power the rear wheels and provide extra driving force while towing.

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Of course, there are a number of hurdles to overcome while developing this technology. The key objective is to make it so the trailer is never pushing up against the tow vehicle. The two entities need to work in harmony. "There's a world where the trailer and tow vehicle are actively communicating with one another," Featherstone said. 

In order to accomplish this, you'd need a connection far more robust than the current, seven-way plug that is currently used to power things like a trailer's brake lights and turn signals. Featherstone envisions a sort of "digital network and sensors" solution, but "there's no standard defined for digital communication between a trailer and a tow vehicle," he said. "We would love if there was support within the industry so there was a common standard," he added, saying proposed standards have been passed through the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Featherstone says this sort of digital connection could pave the way for more robust driver-assistance features integrated right into the trailer. "There are ways to make the towing experience much, much better," he said, talking about things like improved blind-spot monitoring, stability control, camera systems and more. "Can we take [these features] to the next level by integrating [them] between the two vehicles?"

We've already had big advancements in towing, thanks to things like Ford's Pro Trailer Back-Up Assist or GMC's Transparent Trailer, and Featherstone is all about this tech. "We love it," he said. "The innovations to make this easier ... it's a good thing for everybody."

Even further into the future, Featherstone sees a place for autonomous vehicle technology in Airstream's world. "A lot of what's happening in autonomous vehicles today is about freedom of ownership, freedom of time," he said. And for Airstream, it's all about how "you can travel with all the comforts of home." To that point, Featherstone imagines: "Here's an Airstream vehicle, it's autonomous, it powers itself, you go to bed at night and you wake up and you're at Yosemite." Still, Featherstone is realistic, noting "that vision is pretty far off, but that is the dream."

One thing that won't change as Airstream moves into the future? That retro-cool look. "Design is something we think about a lot," Featherstone said, adding that one of the company's mantras is, "Make no changes, only improvements." So while electrification, driver-assistance tech and maybe, maybe autonomy will someday come into play, most importantly, an Airstream will always look and feel like an Airstream. 

"70% of the products we've ever made are still road-worthy," Featherstone said. "That's how it's become iconic. But under the skin, it's completely different."