Technology and innovation are two constant buzzwords in the RV market right now. The combination of increasing demands by consumers for more sophisticated products and solutions, and an eagerness by companies to flex their innovative muscle has led to a boom in hot new tech that makes life on the road more enjoyable.
Automation has a lot to do with this ease of lifestyle; and mirrors the simplicity of gadgets in the home. We’re seeing more and more products that think for you, that take the hard yakka out of measuring and analysing so all you need to do is sit back and relax.
The digitisation and automation of many products, the rapid adoption of solar and more compact lightweight batteries have changed the way camper trailer owners travel, how they use their campers and where they can take them.
Anthony Kittel, CEO and owner of REDARC, an Australian-made automotive electronics and accessories manufacturer, says this is a trend that’s unlikely to abate any time soon.
“Now there are more and more refinements to meet that end goal (of fuss-free camping), like being able to say to Alexa, ‘set up my camper trailer’ — that is really utopia for a camper trailer owner,” he says.
Here, we chat to several companies leading the charge when it comes to technological innovation to see how they have shaped the market, and what’s next on the horizon.
BLAME THE COFFEE MACHINE
Technology advancements are driven twofold: first there’s the pioneering engineers toiling away with newer, faster and cooler ways to travel, and secondly there’s demand from travellers whose lifestyles are shifting.
REDARC, which celebrated its 40th birthday last August, designs its products with a combination of both, talking to customers as regularly as possible to determine their pain points, and then coming up with effective, easy-to-use solutions.
So what do camper trailer owners want now that they didn’t five to 10 years ago? All the creature comforts of home, says Kittel.
“We find that the power demands and the energy storage demands are increasing every single year because of what people want to take with them,” he tells Camper.
“It was unheard of five years ago for someone to be travelling with a coffee machine when they are travelling in their camper trailer. Today you are out of place if you don’t have a coffee machine in your camper trailer!”
Energy storage and management while on the road has been a boom market too, as has battery types and power generation — all the while keeping the weight of the camper to a minimum to avoid overloading and the need for a more muscular tow-tug.
“People want a lighter weight camper rather than a caravan, therefore they need to consider better ways to store energy, so lighter weight, more dense batteries — lithium is becoming more and more popular,” says Kittel.
Ian Ferguson, from Perth-based power product manufacturer iTechWorld, says lithium is the holy grail of power storage for camper trailer owners.
“Traditional lead acid batteries weigh 33kg each and can cycle between 400 and 500 times and you can only use 50 per cent of its power,” Ferguson says. “Whereas a lithium battery weighs only 13kg, you can cycle it over 2,000 times and you can use 80 per cent of its capacity.”
The caffeine-soaked thirst for power has reached his ears as well.
“We make sure our lithium battery has a high discharge current,” he says. “So the reason that’s beneficial is if someone wants to install lithium batteries and use an inverter, then they can use goods from their home.
“The biggest one is coffee machines. We talk to a lot of people who really really want to take their coffee machines on the road with them. So with an iTech 120 lithium battery and an inverter that we do as well you can run it directly from the battery.”
The boom in power demands has led to some very innovative safety systems too, particularly for those who do want to plug in at campsites.
David Betterridge formed his company, Ampfibian, after creating an adaptor which allows an RV’s 15A circuitry to be connected safely to a 10A power source (usually in the home). The 15A power inlet does not fit into domestic 10A powerpoints, so people had been illegally modifying leads as a work-around, with inherent risks of fire and voided insurance.
As camper and caravan travellers decided to take away more electricity-hungry luxuries, the power draw became more hefty, which is increasing their safety concerns, says Betterridge’s business partner and industrial designer, Oliver Kratzer.
“So our products, especially the adaptors, are becoming more and more relevant to people,” he says.
“One of the trends we are seeing is the electrical standards are being safer and safer which is a very good thing for the public of course, there is more protection.
“Some people choose to do things illegally but more and more people are not doing what they used to — modifying the lead and plugging in the lead. And now attitudes are changing.”
SOLAR IS THE NEW BLACK
The combination of a desire for freedom as well as an increasingly environmental mindset has spiked interest in solar technology, says Kittel. It has surged so much, the company had to beef up its offerings to meet demand.
“When I am at the shows and have customers come up and talk to me, the very first question they ask is ‘look, I am interested in solar’,” he says. “It’s the number one question. The consumers want to go camping and want solar because they don’t want to be trapped in a campsite.”
Camper trailer owners are interested in REDARC’s lightweight foldable panels, he says, particularly the solar blankets that can be moved to follow the sunlight.
Ferguson says these lightweight panels are hugely popular with his customers, too.
“We have seen a big shift from hard solar panels to soft, light solar panels,” he says. “You can put them on your windscreen, around camp or on the roof and then you fold them back up and put them away. We have 140W up to 280W.
“You get a five metre lead which means you can park in the shade and put the solar panel out and you get the full benefit of your solar system.”
REDARC was primarily focused on the heavy truck market before turning its gaze to the RV sector. In the early 2000s the company created a dual battery isolator — a switch between two batteries in a vehicle to make sure that the second battery (the one that generally powers the auxiliary or house loads) didn’t drain the starter battery and leave travellers stranded. It was hugely popular, says Kittel.
“Its success came from the fact that we integrated electronics into a mechanical device so we were able to take a dumb device and make it smart by sensing and measuring battery voltages, and taking the decision away from a manual switch to a fully automated device,” he says.
Since then, the focus has been creating products to make life easier, simpler and safer. REDARC now has a full suite of RV products from solar panels to battery chargers and inverters to electronic brake controllers and vehicle and battery management systems.
Power storage has become a huge issue component of a camper’s setup, especially for those who want prolonged off-grid capability, as has management of that storage. Kittel says campers love the tech because it allows them to be in control of their travel experience,
“Consumers want information,” he says. “People have solar and they want to know how much energy they have captured from their solar today and how many hours of sunshine they have. If they are planning where they are going and calculating how much energy capacity they have, they know they can stay camping for 10 days.
“There is all sorts of information they would like to understand about their system because it gives them a feeling of security and safety when they are travelling.”
There is ever-increasing automation tech on the horizon, says Kittel, because there is a demand for it.
“One of the most frustrating things is when you get to a site and you have to set up the camper or caravan,” he says. “The beauty would be that at the press of a button on your app on your phone when you get there and it is slightly dark and all you want to do is eat, that you press a button and bang — everything sets itself up automatically.
“Wouldn’t that be wonderful? There is no reason why that can’t happen.”
HOW THE MAGIC HAPPENS
New products don’t just magically appear — they take time, ingenuity and a little money. Mostly it’s the result of trying to solve pain points for customers. Ampfibian founder David Betteridge created his first power adaptor using off-the-shelf parts which he first sold retailer to retailer.
“We would get people coming in asking for a product that didn’t exist,” he says. “It started with one product hand-built and over the years turned into multiple products produced in the factory.”
The company now offers a suite of products from adaptors to surge protectors produced in its Ballina, NSW, facility.
Cost can be a prohibitive factor with tech innovation. In developing its own range of lithium products, spearheaded by the flagship iTECH120 120Ah 12V battery, Ferguson said the family-owned business had to find a way to make it affordable.
“It really started to take off about three years ago,” he explains. “We became aware of lithium batteries when we were looking but the price of them and the cost of installing them wasn’t quite right. We (eventually) addressed the objections of lithium — the cost, installation, and compatibility with other chargers.”
REDARC takes a very serious approach to development of new products, dedicating 15 per cent of all sales revenue to R&D. A dedicated company was established when its first battery isolator was being developed, REDARC Technologies, which employed a single engineer. Today, there are 42 engineers in the team working on very specific and documented product development plans.
“We run a technology roadmap and a product development roadmap — they are two different roadmaps but they are actually linked,” Kittel says.
“You have to develop the technology a year or two ahead of the product because the biggest risk to being able to quote a price and delivery date on a new product is when you come up against hurdles during the development process because you haven't got a piece of technology research sorted, so you need to do some more research.”
REDARC works on a five to seven-year plan for product development, the final stages of which involves customers testing in real-life camping situations.
Kittel says it is vital for the company to be constantly innovating in a market where travellers’ needs are constantly changing, and he feels they’ve hit the sweet spot with their investment strategy.
“We have worked out a recipe of how much money we need to be investing into new product development for us to continue the rate of growth we are aspiring to achieve,” he says.
“The beauty is that once you design a successful product into the RV industry then obviously the consumers like it and you talk to them and get more information and learn more about the industry, you pick up other pain points and you solve them — it’s a snowball effect.”