Winnebago Industries Inc., the maker of outsized recreational vehicles, bookmobiles and mobile insurance offices, is starting to build customized battery-electric RVs with no tailpipe emissions.
It’s another example of a truck maker embracing electrification to help customers meet sustainability and environmental goals. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks accounted for 23 percent of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from all transportation in 2016, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Winnebago’s commercial offerings consume a lot of gasoline and diesel fuel. They come in lengths of nearly 34 feet and 39 feet. And they stand 12.5 feet tall, are almost 8.5 feet wide and weigh up to 26,000 pounds.
“If I buy a diesel-powered (blood donation truck), it’s likely I won’t be able to register it in three years because the air quality district is probably going to put the clamps down,” said Jamie Sorenson, Winnebago director of specialty vehicles and advanced technology.
The California Air Resources Board last week suggested “extreme” measures for curbing tailpipe emissions. That might include a ban on internal combustion engines. CARB is battling with the Trump administration over its plan that would keep emission standards at current levels.
Winnebago and Motiv Power Systems are working on six electric conversions. Motiv substitutes battery packs for the internal combustion engine in a Ford Motor Co. chassis. Winnebago provides the RV shell. The shell is customized by a second-stage manufacturer known as an upfitter.
Winnebago’s first electric customer is UCLA Medical Center, which will take delivery of a Mobile Surgical Instrument Lab in June. It will be used to sterilize surgical instruments for the university’s two hospitals, shuttling seven miles between them.
“It’s going to save about $60,000 a month because they’re currently contracting that work out,” Sorensen said.
The customized Winnebago includes a high-temperature pressure chamber called an autoclave that requires a lot of electricity. That means as many as three air conditioners are needed to keep the vehicle comfortable. The lab will stay plugged in except when being driven from one hospital to the other.
The mobile lab costs about $425,000. State grants cover $90,000.
BREATHMOBILES, LUNG CANCER SCREENING
Winnebago has contracts to create four electric-powered Breathmobiles in low-income areas of California. These vehicles treat asthmatic youngsters. Funding will come from a $119 million settlement paid by Southern California Gas Co. for a 2015 methane leak. Winnebago built the original gas-powered Breathmobile.
“You’re worried about your lungs and you’re breathing in fumes,” Sorensen said. A zero-emission Breathmobile removes the irony, he said.
Winnebago and Motiv last year worked with Samsung Neurologica, the medical arm of Samsung that makes CT scanners. Samsung’s battery-powered low-dose CT for early detection of lung cancer made it ideal for mobile use. Winnebago launched the world’s first mobile lung cancer-screening unit last September at the Global Climate Action Summit.
An electric-powered mobile preschool will help educate children in Eagle County, where many families live at or below the national poverty line, said Tom Boyd, a spokesman for the philanthropic Vail Valley Foundation, which owns and operates the Magic Bus mobile preschools.
It also will help meet Eagle County environmental goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025.
“If there’s a way we can go pick up these kids and reduce emissions at the same time, let’s do it,” Boyd said.
Individuals are paying for most of the new preschool. The state kicked in some of the money it received in the Volkswagen diesel cheating settlement, Boyd said.
“We’re an early adopter and a good test case,” he said.
An electric conversion adds about two weeks to the four months it takes to build a commercial Winnebago. The shorter J33SE model holds six sodium-nickel battery packs generating 121 kilowatt-hours of power. The longer J38SE carries eight packs that put out 169 kWh.
The expected driving range on a full charge is 85-125 miles. Recharging takes about eight hours.
Winnebago sells mostly large RVs. The top-of-the-line Horizon motor home has a 150-gallon fuel tank that averages 7 to 8 mpg. Owners fill up and travel long distances.
But such wandering isn’t for everybody, Sorenson said.
“We’ve done a lot of market research, and there is a high degree of people who just want to get away for the weekend,” he said.
Those travelers open the door for electric RVs with shorter driving ranges.
GERMAN ELECTRIC RV
German motorhome maker Iridium showed an electric-drive mobile home at a travel trade fair in Stuttgart in January. Deliveries are expected in July or August.
Motiv uses packs of the same batteries found in passenger cars. The power-to-weight ratio is lower. This reduces stress on the battery. Future models will use Samsung lithium-ion battery cells rated to last 524,000 miles in the BMW i3 electric car, said Matt O’Leary, Motiv chief executive.
“This is the longer-term vision,” he said.