It might still be early to get excited about an electric campervan. Meanwhile, you’ve got adventures to pursue.
We’ve seen the future of campervans, and it has a VW badge.
Volkswagen’s new ID.Buzz takes a camper fave and gives it a modern makeover – with an electric drivetrain that’s capable of 0-60 mph in less than six seconds. It has a turning circle of just 10M, its batteries are good for a whopping 370 miles, and it should go on sale sometime next year.
Perhaps surprisingly, the ID.Buzz isn’t the first electric camper VW has created. The manufacturer also designed the e-BULLI electric camper (a modified T1 Samba) and commissioned the VW Type 20, a 1962 Type 2 VW campervan with an all-electric drivetrain. You can’t buy the Type 20 – as it was a one-off commissioned for PR purposes – but you probably wouldn’t want to anyway: its 10kW battery is half the size of the one in a Renault Zoe hatchback, one quarter the size of the battery powering Nissan’s tiny Leaf car and about one tenth the size of the battery in a Tesla. At 45kW, the e-BULLI’s battery is bigger – but its quoted range is still only 124 miles in ideal conditions.
So, while electric campervans are on their way, they might not yet be up to the tasks you’re used to putting a conventional camper through.
Make way for the next era
There’s little doubt that electric vehicles are the future. The UK government intends to ban sales of diesel and petrol vans by 2030 – and hybrids by 2035. Schemes such as the London congestion charge and the introduction of low emission zones in cities make things increasingly hard for the internal combustion engine. But for a good long time, a customised VW campervan is going to be a smarter, more useful buy. While electric vehicles don’t run on fossil fuels, they and their batteries require extensive resources to manufacture, and the electricity they run on may still come from fossil fuel power stations. By converting an existing vehicle instead, your environmental impact may be smaller.
There are two other key reasons why a conversion may be a better buy. The first is that electric campervans are rarer than a bank holiday without traffic jams right now. And the second is that the UK in particular has a long way to go before an electric camper can help you go a long way.
Avoid struggling uphill in the meantime
How far can an electric vehicle go? The answer isn’t simple. The ranges cited above are like quoted broadband speeds or MPG figures: they reflect ideal conditions, not real-world ones. For electric vehicles, that means the quoted range is usually based on a vehicle with a brand new battery – driving at a constant speed on flat roads on nice days when there’s no wind. As we all know very well, driving in the UK isn’t remotely like that. Batteries also degrade over time and range will shorten as a result.
Why is it that so many images we see of electric campers show them near sunny California beaches, and not halfway up a Welsh mountain in driving rain with the heater on full blast? The more your vehicle has to do, the more power it uses. So going up hills, driving into a headwind, doing a lot of braking and accelerating and using other electrical systems will all affect your range.
And that leads to another difference between the northwest of the US and the UK. There are more charging locations in California than there are in the entire UK: around 22,000 compared to 13,000 here.
Mitigate ’range anxiety’ for the near-term
The term “range anxiety” describes the worry electric vehicle drivers have about running out of power. Things have improved dramatically in just a few years, but it’s still much less stressful to drive a petrol or diesel van for longer trips. While there are more charging locations than there are petrol stations in the UK, the person in front of you in a petrol station isn’t going to be filling their car for anywhere between 30 minutes and eight hours.
According to energy firm EDF, as of late 2020 there were 35,000 charging connectors in the entire UK. But that’s connectors, not places. Those connectors are in 13,000 different locations, and some of those are commercial premises that aren’t available to members of the public.
There are particular issues for campervan owners, as well. Generally, we’re the kind of people who like to go far from the madding crowds – which means we would rely on rural charging points. If you look around some of Scotland’s most beautiful bits on Zap-Map.com, for example, you’ll see that the vast majority of rural charging points in Scotland are relatively slow 7kW ones, not the rapid chargers you’ll find in bigger towns and cities or motorway hubs. To charge a 40kW battery from a flat state (such as the battery in a Nissan Leaf, for example), you’ll need around six hours on a 7kW supply.
When you consider that those locations rarely have multiple available chargers, it’s clear that for now electric campervans are going to spend a lot of their time either waiting for other people’s vehicles to charge or hoping to find an empty charging point before the battery runs out.
Look forward to the brighter electric future on the horizon
Don’t get us wrong. We’re excited about electric campervans, and while we’ll miss the unique characteristics of our VWs’ engines we love the prospect of cleaner camping in VWs that run almost silently and accelerate like sports cars. But while you can see the future from here, it might be a few years until batteries are better, charging infrastructure is improved, and prices fall. That’s when electric campervans are going to become real alternatives to the classic VWs we all love so much.
When electric campers are truly affordable and we can go wherever we want without worrying about running out of puff, we’ll be first to sing their praises and come up with incredible conversions. But for the foreseeable future, we think camping heaven still comes with an engine in the front or a boxer in the back rather than a battery under the floor.