A Self-Propelled, Battery-Powered Travel Trailer From Tesla & Other Auto-Tech Alums – A CleanTechnica Exclusive
My first impressions of the Lightship L1 battery-powered travel trailer are all about the design. Clean, sleek lines. Windows with smoky glass and subtle privacy blinds dominate the RV’s façade. A long length — this is a substantial RV for extensive travel. With a starting price of $125,000 or $118,400 after an available tax credit, this travel trailer is targeted at a fairly affluent segment of the RV consumer crowd.
A team of former Tesla, Rivian, Proterra, and Lucid alums leveraged their experience in automotive EV development to build the Lightship L1. It’s an aerodynamic, battery-powered travel trailer, the first purpose-built travel trailer with a self-propulsion system that enables near zero range or mile-per-gallon efficiency loss for the vehicle towing it. The electric powertrain with up to 80 kWh of onboard battery capacity allows the trailer to propel itself and achieve near-zero range or efficiency loss for the tow vehicle. Thus, a 300-mile range EV used to tow it remains a 300-mile range EV, and a 25-mpg gas truck remains a 25-mpg gas truck.
In keeping with the Tesla disruptive approach to transportation, Lightship is taking a “clean-sheet approach” to building an all-electric RV. Its hyper-efficient design is 3 times more aerodynamic than a traditional travel trailer, allowing for longer range and greater efficiency.
Its specifications include:
- Length: 27 ft
- Width: 8 ft 6 in
- Height: 6 ft 9 in (road mode); 10 ft (camp mode)
- Gross Vehicle Weight: 7,500 lb (fully loaded)
- Sleeping capacity: 4-6 depending on configuration
Its sustainability details:
- A no-compromise battery system that can provide a week of off-grid power without charging
- Up to 3 kW of solar power, so the RV can power the living needs of its occupants and eliminates the reliance on propane and other fossil fuels
- An ecosystem of all-electric appliances, connected features, and modern amenities
Like Tesla models, Lightship sells its products directly to US consumers on the company’s website. It is available now for a $500 pre-order, with production expected to begin in late 2024.
A Bit of Background about Lightship
Founded in 2020 and based in San Francisco and Boulder, Lightship is symbolic of the macro transition to an all-electric transportation ecosystem. It brings the increased convenience and performance that electrification offers to a pastime enjoyed by 1 in 10 US families.
Lightship completed a Series A funding round in the summer of 2022, led by Victoria Beasley of Prelude Ventures and a Seed funding round in 2021 led by Andrew Beebe of Obvious Ventures. Other Lightship investors include Congruent Ventures, My Climate Journey, HyperGuap, Alumni Ventures, Climactic, and Tony Fadell’s Build Collective.
Prior to co-founding Lightship, Ben Parker took his university experience building hybrid-electric race cars to Tesla, where he spent 5 years as a battery engineer. He worked on the Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market car, designing and validating parts, inventing and developing new manufacturing processes, and helping ramp the program out of battery “production hell” and into stable, high-volume production. As a longtime gearhead and EV geek with a passion for sustainable travel, Ben aims to bring the RV industry into the electric age, starting with Lightship’s fully electric and aerodynamic travel trailer.
Toby Kraus is the co-founder and president of Lightship. Toby spent 5 years at Tesla, where he held several roles including leading Tesla’s finance team and overseeing product management for the Model S. In 2016, Toby took his passion for vehicle electrification to Proterra, where he led the Proterra Powered business unit, responsible for the deployment of Proterra’s heavy-duty electric vehicle technology to numerous commercial vehicle products. In co-founding Lightship, Toby was inspired to push electrification into a new segment and to new demographics who haven’t been previously served by the electrification movement.
CleanTechnica Exclusive: Interview with Ben & Toby
In the press release, Ben explains, “One in 10 American families own an RV, but the RV industry hasn’t experienced innovation for decades.” He also notes that the Lightship 1 is “not an ancient RV that’s been ‘electrified.’”
Q: Why do you feel the RV industry has been so reluctant to implement changes? What innovations did you apply to the Lightning L1 that were inspired by your work with previous tech-oriented automakers?
Perhaps the mentality has been that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but the problem is that it is broken! Quality issues plague the industry, and the rise of electric passenger cars necessitate a wholesale rethink (towards greater efficiency and great new designs that incorporate sustainable thinking) of the recreational vehicle so that long-range, clean, and satisfying RV road trips are an option for people in the future.
Q: You mention in the press release that “Lightship is changing the industry forever for the better.” What is Lightship doing that is so different than other RV manufacturers who are looking ahead to 2030 and a zero emissions future?
We approached designing an all-electric RV from the ground up, designing for the new constraints (e.g. battery energy density) and opportunities (e.g. clean, quiet, seamless onboard power) that electrification poses, and the product that resulted, our L1, is simpler and more efficient than a traditional travel trailer on many fronts (range, cost per mile, onboard energy efficiency, purposeful and human-centered design features, centralized digital infotainment system – among others). As a company starting from scratch, we get to ask holistic questions like “what does the ideal RV travel and camping experience look and feel like?” and answer those questions over time with our products and business model.
Q: The stagnation of the RV industry is partially the result of the market being dominated by only a few large companies, Ben says. What has the experience been like to coalesce a group of like-minded innovators who were committed to alter the way that RVs are manufactured?
It has been a dream, and the dream has only just begun! We love that we get the opportunity to bring our skills and passions to an industry that is relatively untouched by modern technology and product development practices. The ultimate outcome for us will be making RVing easier and more accessible, more enjoyable, and more environmentally sustainable for present and future generations.
Q: Your website says that you all “spent thousands of hours in the virtual wind tunnel for a towable that’s sleek and stable, floating down the road with ease.” What kind of data did you look for in your early wind tunnel experiments? What were the most important takeaways that you gained from the wind tunnel testing?
Aerodynamics engineering work was the first area of focus in developing the product concept. We used automotive simulation tools and worked with a great aerodynamicist who comes from an automotive background. We ran many rounds of iterative simulation and geometry development to minimize the frontal area of our travel trailer and the combined coefficient of drag of the tow vehicle and L1. We continue to refine our vehicle exterior to optimize the L1’s aerodynamic performance, setting a high bar in the industry and maximizing the towing range we offer our customers.
Q: Toby says that “we are leveraging our expertise in automotive EV development and design.” What specific experiences were applicable to creating the Lightning L1?
There are many lessons and best practices across design, engineering, manufacturing, supply chain management, quality control, and user experience design (among others) that we’re applying from our time working on electric vehicles in the auto industry. Engineering from first principles and minimizing production complexity by reducing the number of possible product variants while still offering customers high-value customization opportunities are a couple of key concepts to call out.
Q: Please contrast the experience of traveling in the Lightship 1 with typical RVs and their “inefficient, unreliable product designs and a power experience that relies on smelly, noisy, gas or propane generators.”
“Set it and forget it.” The idea we strive for is a product that is comfortable, easy to use, looks great and has thoughtful design features that surprise and delight. It is long-range and provides worry-free power to run your appliances and power your campsite (e.g., charge your EV), and lasts for generations of use.
Q: Toby’s bio explains that he wants “to create a more environmentally conscious world – in hopes that his son and daughter can roadtrip in the Rocky Mountains and backpack the same trails he grew to love as a kid.” How does that translate into halting more habitat and biodiversity loss?
RVing is massively popular and, we believe, a pastime that has the potential to appeal to even more demographics of people if we are able to create products that are easy to use, super-efficient and beautifully designed. For me personally, RVing has created an opportunity for my family to venture into the outdoors in a much more practical and enjoyable way (I used to just throw a backpack on and hike into the woods and sleep in a tent, not so easy with two young kids…). We are motivated to not only make the pastime of RVing sustainable which will have the direct effect of improving our planet but also to invite more types of people into the activity because we believe that the more people that are able to connect with nature, the more they will want to preserve the outdoors for generations to come.
Q: What kinds of “amazing experience(s) of traveling in the outdoors” do you envision the Lightship 1 travelers to enjoy?
You name it! The beauty of an RV that looks great, has clean and quiet power for days, and can go long distances is that there are a lot of things it can do and places it can go. Some people will go to state and national parks with them, others will dry camp on BLM land or at Hipcamp sites, others will go to sports games and music festivals to tailgate and lounge in comfort. People may use Lightships at remote or low-services job sites, others may use them as an ADU (home office, guest bedroom, etc. ) on the same property where they live … the possibilities for a product that is an EV / solar system, a modern living space, and a consumer electronics product are vast. Ben, for one, plans to use his L1 as a pop-up food truck from time to time and has preemptively roped his girlfriend into the endeavor.
Q: The Lightship L1 was a finalist in the 2023 SXSW Innovation Awards design category. How did that competition go? What kind of reactions did the Lightship L1 receive?
The reaction to Lightship from the crowd, members of the media, RV industry veterans, and design judges at SXSW in Austin was exceptional! Even our musical guests (who performed at our outdoor venue each night) were wowed by the L1 prototype and spoke enthusiastically about the product between songs. We had visitors who flew halfway across the country to see our prototype in person after having seen it on our website which went live a few days before the event. People visiting SXSW from Europe told us that the L1 was the most exciting “caravan” they’d ever seen. We could not have asked for a better reaction to our public unveil and are hugely appreciative for all the support we’ve received so far. Your support galvanizes us towards production next year!
Q: Ben’s mission is to “advance the electrification of everything and bring Americans of all stripes together – on the road, around the campfire, and into the great outdoors. There’s an undercurrent in this vision of conflict resolution, peaceable societies, or even using nature as a bridge to building commonality.” What would Ben say to that synthesis and the place of the Lightship L1 as a mechanism to accomplish social good?
Ben would say (in fact, is saying) that he agrees. There are few settings as disarming and humanizing as the campground; it is so easy to connect and share experiences with people from all walks of life across the campfire or out together on a beautiful hike. That is my experience every time I hit the road for an outdoor road trip. It’s a turbulent time in our country’s history, and I hope that Lightship can help promote healing and unifying conversations and great lifelong connections forged in the outdoors.
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