SALT LAKE CITY – Fresh off spearheading the successful launch of Thor and TH2’s TOGO technology project, Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler is back at the helm of the iconic travel trailer company and finds himself in familiar territory.
Not only is he back with the Silver Bullet manufacturer, but he finds himself in the middle of bringing some 21st Century technology to one of the most familiar looks and brands of the 20th Century.
As noted during The Reveal at last week’s RVX: The RV Experience event, Airstream’s 2019 Classic models will be loaded with the company's Smart Technology, which digitally connects owners to their RVs for a more enjoyable camping experience.
But Wheeler says Smart Technology isn’t just a case of technology overload. It comes from understanding that customers want the same kind of functionality they have at home in their home on the road.
“It wasn’t technology for tech’s sake,” he said. “It was making Airstream easier, more intuitive, safer, less challenges and hassles. So, we integrated a lot of smart home technology. And beyond just turning lights on and off and awnings and heat and A/C, but obviously monitoring tank levels, propane usage, electricity. Understanding where your systems are that are so critical for comfort and making sure your resources last.”
And when Wheeler says “we”, he means it literally. Where other manufacturers have built smart control systems for their vehicles in cooperation with an OE supplier, Airstream’s system has largely been developed from within.
He said he believes that is why the Classic won an award during The Reveal.
“What we're doing is kind of this leading edge,” he said. “I'm sure there will be many others close behind. I know there's some other similar platforms out there – mostly created by suppliers – meaning we’re one of the first OEMs to create a kind of system to OEM designs. It’s a digital connectivity platform driven by what we know to be the needs of our customers. So, it was very flattering and it’s great to be included in that.”
In addition to just controlling systems onboard the unit, Smart Control also contains three sets of checklists to help RVers remember vital steps to take before leaving home, upon arriving at the campground and before leaving the campground.
And it will help the users locate their Airstream in the event they are lost in the campground.
Future uses also are currently in development.
Wheeler says at some point, the App will allow the user to load a trip into the memory. The App will then track resource usage.
“It knows that you're going to run out of LP in two days and in two days you're going to be in this campground, so would you like us to arrange LP delivery to your campsite of this campground in two days?” he said. “So, when you think about the hassles of RVing that we kind of take for granted, there are a lot of those that can be helped through by smart use of technology. Again, not applied for tech's sake but applied for the customer experience.”
Wheeler said the decision was made to make the system cloud-based so that in future applications, it will be accessible from distances.
For example, say the user is on a hike and the weather App knows there's a storm coming toward the trailer. The trailer knows the awnings are out, so it sends an alert to the user to let him know winds are picking up. The user may be 5 or 10 or 100 miles away, but can use that information to tell the trailer to roll in the awnings.
Or perhaps the trailer knows there is water in the tanks and it's 35 degrees out. It sends a message asking, “Would you like us to turn on your tank heaters?”
Or in a worse scenario, “We notice your smartphone is not near your trailer. The trailer is moving. So, would you like to turn on the cameras to see what's going on?” Wheeler said.
For now, the technology is only available on the 2019 Classic Airstream, but Wheeler said that as the prices for the hardware inevitably come down, it will be available on every Airstream model.
Wheeler said his stint with TH2 was worthwhile both for the advancement of the TOGO project as well as the recognition Airstream has received.
“Honestly, it's mostly things Airstream had under way that Thor recognized was a bigger opportunity across the industry and used the more established TH2 to help take some of that forward,” he said. “TH2 is a little less focused on the smart technology and smart home technology and more focused on the digital platform and services. But in some way what we were doing in Airstream was the genesis of a lot of that.”