Self-driving RV

About ten years ago I wrote about immigrant-driven Chinese-made motorhomes (RVs) that could alleviate the pain of sitting in American traffic jams and paying American labor rates for RV construction.

My recent trip to Burning Man (slides), at the intersection of RVs and high-tech, got me thinking about the potentially revolutionary consequences of a self-driving RV. If Google can make us a self-driving car, why not a self-driving 40′ Class A motorhome? Now the RV becomes like a cruise ship. You spend the day in a National Park, tuck everyone into bed, and then let Google drive you to the next National Park overnight. You wake up to find that Larry and Sergei have selected a campsite for you, extended the awning, and put out the lawn chairs and table for breakfast.

How awesome will this be for aging Gen Xers? (let’s assume that the Baby Boomers will die off before Google can leap through all of the regulatory hurdles)

What about the potential for increased fuel consumption? When television was invented people thought that Ivy League lectures and Shakespeare plays would be popular. In the 1970s nobody would have predicted that improvements in engine efficiency would result in suburban Americans buying pavement-melting SUVs. Right now we have prototype Google self-driving cars that are the apex of environmental responsibility. Could it be that self-driving technology, by eliminating the main problem with 40′ RVs (ungainly to drive and park), will result in a renewed arms race among Americans for who can have the biggest most gas-guzzling vehicle on the road?

What else changes if an RV can drive itself? Would it be reasonable to revive my idea of using an RV as a defense against urban gridlock?


17 thoughts on “Self-driving RV

  1. This was my first reaction to the automated car idea, when I first heard it proposed in 1992.

    It solves some problems with car use. It pretty much solves the safety problem, and the waste of people’s time having to spend a couple of hours per day driving to work/ errands (I realize there are people who really like driving). It may well help with traffic problems, if slow moving but regular traffic turns out to move faster than faster traffic including lots of people who don’t drive very well.

    They don’t do anything about the problems caused by car exhaust or burning up fossil fuels. Cars running on electricity/ renewables might but this is a completely different tech than automated cars and for some reason some people confuse the two. There also is alot of problems (some benefits, but mostly problems) stemming around organizing residential and commercial districts around the premise that everyone is going to drive which automated cars won’t fix either.

    Its sort of the auto tech version of the ACA. Some of the more minor problems with a bad system get fixed while the rest of the system gets locked in amber.

  2. Actually there are some potential advantages with parking and the costs, many of which are not in the sticker price, of owning a car. So I was too critical of automated cars in the last post.

    If the tech gets to the point where you don’t have to physically keep your old car nearby, you could just summon one with your phone and it will be at your location in a few minutes, that would be really helpful. The cars could rarely be parked, just keep circulating from one user to the next, and be programmed to go periodically to a central maintenance/ repair facility. In this case, by solving the parking problem, these things would improve land use patterns in a big way.

    Also, if you need a car to get to work and back, you could pay a monthly subscription fee to some service and it would cover x number of trips per day, avoiding the maintenance and bureaucratic headaches of owning your own vehicle. Some automated car advocates seem them as replacing mass transit, but I think those systems will continue to exist, though not expand, because if you are willing and able to take mass transit to work, then you can avoid even paying the subscription fee and just pay for the car on an as needed basis a couple of times a month (presumably errands would be handled by a combination of walking and using delivery services).

    And the safety improvement would be pretty significant, which I didn’t emphasize sufficiently in my last comment.

    But yes, the environmental problems would have to be tacked separately.

  3. I’ve never understood RVs. Most places (other than BM) where you can drive your RV you can also rent a hotel room or a cabin. What’s the point of shlepping your entire house with you? If you are not on permanent vacation, how does it ever pay to do this vs. just staying in a hotel?

  4. Izzie: load in, load out, pets, dry docking, flexibility, predictability.

    It’s rarely cost-efficient, some new diesel pushers cost $500+k. But that’s the wrong way to evaluate it.

    I spent a year living in an RV with wife and kids and pets. We traveled the country twice (20k miles) and saw lots of people and things. It was completely impractical, but any other way of having the same experience would have been more so.

    We’ve used the RV a few times for 2-3 week trips since, and it’s great as long as your destination is (the journey and) not a city. We tow an SUV behind, but heading out of the city every night to go to bed can be a drag. Though I guess a lot of people do that every day and call it a “work commute”. Some downtown hotels will accommodate parking for a large vehicle in their lot, and sometimes it’s a better (though again, non-economic) choice.

    Regarding self-driving RVs, I think that’s a great idea. The RV market can support high-priced add-on features, so it might be a viable entrance to consumer sales (assuming that the trucking industry will be the first wide deployment).

    I actually enjoy driving the rig. But my wife doesn’t, as much, and anyway the idea of a private rail car not constrained to railways sounds awesome. Yes, fuel economy, but still.

  5. @Izzie

    It’s a big deal if you have small kids. Ie for us it’s pretty much a game-changer (for example we RV’d this May with a 9m and 2yo).

    The effort involved in packing / unpacking daily (if you change hotels) is huge. Kids also have a harder time acclimating to new room / nowhere to cook for them. Just as importantly, in an RV you put the kids to sleep and simply drive to the next destination in the evening. So you are solving the huge problem of driving with kids (as they seem to hate it otherwise).

    Even if you don’t have kids, the advantage of staying in RV sites is that you are much closer to nature. It’s kind of like camping but without any inconvenience of living in a tent (you have everything in an RV – kitchen / shower / etc). I’m not familiar with US sites but ones in Europe and NZ are simply amazing and fairly devoid of people outside of the prime season.

    For example here is view from the RV (dinnertime) in the middle of Swiss field: / or staying on a beach in NZ:

    Enjoying something like that in a hotel setting is simply impossible.

  6. A self driving rv could save fuel by going more slowly. If it had 8 hours to make a 4 hour drive why rush?

    It could also use rails instead of roads for part of the drive to save even more fuel, if integrated with the self driving train system.

  7. I’ve never used an RV, but I could see living in an RV, especially with no job or something you could do over the internet for money. Keep in mind that many down-and-out people live in their cars/ trailer parks.

    For a vacation, maybe a long vacation with lots of wilderness stuff and lots of kids. I have a small daughter. I think that “vacations” are one of the things that you have to be prepared to give up if you are middle class and have children.

  8. @Izzie A few years ago our family of 4 drove from Calgary to Yellowstone -> Bryce Canyon -> Grand Canyon -> Hoover Dam -> Vegas -> back to Calgary (with other stops like Salt Lake, including In and Out along the way). 4 amazing landmarks and Vegas 🙂 in 2 weeks with our bikes to ride around each park. I couldn’t imagine how to do that without a trailer. I’m sure we could have seen Rushmore by flying in but I’m not sure the cost would have been less taking dining out costs, rental car costs, and hotel costs into account. And then we wouldn’t have seen Deadwood, an empty Sturgis before the migration, crossed the Missouri nor witnessed the shockingly boring flatness of the Dakotas. Next year we plan to loop the Great Lakes while visiting Cedarwood, Niagra Falls, and Canada’s Wonderland. If you have only one destination, I agree a flight/hotel makes more sense. A tour however is best serviced by a roadtrip.

  9. If the thing is self-driving and heavy (and a half-million dollars) why not load it up with some fancy batteries and an electric drive system? Go a hundred miles, pull into an RV park with electricity, camp for a day or two, repeat. Use a big diesel genset for longer trips/extended off-grid.

  10. @Izzie – I guess it’s not the safest thing to do, no. It’s essentially a probabilistic tradeoff, the kind we do take on everyday basis – do you always buckle up when taking a cab?. During the day they are only riding strapped in the carseats.

    Put it this way – I would not do this in Russia (those crazy dashcam videos are fairly representative of driving there). In civilized countries it seems more reasonable.

  11. I would be more concerned that if there was a minor accident, they would arrest you for child abuse and take custody away.

  12. Then again, what happened to Tracy Morgan was not pretty. Though the rumored $90 million settlement he got from Walmart despite being negligent by not wearing his belt will surely make him feel a little better.

  13. Self-driving RV going mainstream means easy relocation. The incentive to live in places with a high density of suitable jobs would lessen: it’s easier to lure people 100km away from Silicon Valley if they can move their home over there in a couple of hours, and if they know they can move back in another hour, should they change jobs again.

    Some taxes would have to evolve, if a significant chunk of the population elected to become nomadic.

    Autonomous RVs might reuse parts of the parking space made redundant by autonomous cars (if you know you can hail a car within minutes, you’ll rent them by the hour, rather than own one that spends 95% of its life parked. If cars spend 50% of their time parked instead of 95%, you only need a tenth of the parking space, and you can locate it away from pricier areas).

    However, would we keep the engine in those RVs? If autonomous towing vehicles are as practical to rent by the hour as autonomous cars,, you might prefer to have a trailer, and rent the tow-truck.

  14. It is doubtful a significant chunk of people would look forward to moving frequently. That isn’t the case even now with massive international waves of quasi-nomads. They want to stay put in one place eventually, not bounce around forever.

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