The classic American camper brand will now let digital nomads control their campers by iPhone. Airstream started taking orders for a $1,000 kit that will convert any of its vehicles into a smart home. The move gives new meaning to the phrase "turn on, tune in, and drop out."
Airstream—the maker of bullet-shaped, aluminum-clad trailers—finally has some contemporary technology to go with its Jetsons aesthetic.
The brand from RV giant Thor Industries is introducing a new app for controlling its campers, from AC to lights.
“It’s effectively a blend of a smart home and a connected vehicle,” said McKay Featherstone, Airstream’s vice president of product development. “We’re trying to solve multiple problems for our customers.”
The system, dubbed Smart Control, has been standard on Airstream’s largest, most expensive unit—the Classic—since July. In coming months, the same features will start appearing throughout the rest of the company’s product line. What’s more, Airstream started taking orders today for a $1,000 kit that will convert any Airstream into a smart home, no matter the age.
Arguably, the tech upgrade is overdue. Anyone dropping $152,000 on a vehicle in the 21st-century likely expects to be able to keep tabs on it remotely; to check the level of the propane tank while in town getting groceries, or kick on the air-conditioning in advance when returning from a long day in the great outdoors.
Indeed, Airstream was partly inspired by how its biggest fans had cobbled together remote-control systems of their own with Wi-Fi routers and smart switches and outlets.
To keep everything running smoothly, Airstream partnered with AT&T to craft two new broadband data plans. The first offers a year unlimited data for $360. More casual campers can get 5GB at a time for $25 a month, and flip that service on and off at any time.
Once the entire Airstream lineup is wired for smartphones, the system should give Airstream even more momentum with Instagram influencers and AirBNB entrepreneurs, a not insignificant part of its business of late. “Staying connected is a real pain point for customers,” Featherstone explained.
The #vanlife movement and a tide of digital nomads has been good for Airstream. Sales of the metallic trailers have tripled in the past five years, in part because it rolled out few tiny models aimed at minimalists and millennials. The brand’s cheapest model, the $37,500 Basecamp, is riddled with USB charging ports and comes pre-wired for solar panels. Today, roughly half of Airstream customers have never owned an RV.
Winnebago, one of Thor’s main rivals, doesn’t have a dedicated system for controlling its RVs remotely. However, its customers can program certain features to cycle on and off at certain times. “Long-term, we’re always looking for ways to make our vehicles more intuitive and easier for customers to use,” said product manager Russ Garfin. “But you have to be careful that you don’t just add technology for the sake of having it.”
The company’s latest innovation is on the battery front. It recently began offering a 48-volt lithium-ion battery pack on some of its models, a power source not unlike those found in high-end electric vehicles. The unit costs an extra $25,000, but replaces propane for HVAC systems and silently powers TVs and other gadgets that used to rely on noisy generators.
“With a lot of this stuff,” Garfin said, “the sky’s the limit on what you can do.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
Photo credit: Production at Airstream’s assembly plant in Jackson Center, Ohio, has tripled in the past five years. The company has now debuted a mobile app for controlling the electronics of its campers. Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg