In several previous articles, I’ve covered the slow rise of electric vans. If you focus on the environment, electric vans are exciting because they will allow many commercial vehicles to go electric. Most work vans today run on gasoline or diesel, are not hybrid and therefore have disgusting gas mileage in the city (where they mostly run). This means that not only will their owners benefit from lower total costs of ownership, but also that cities will get rid of much of the pollution while the outsized greenhouse gas contributions that work vans produce can largely disappear. Awesome!
If you don’t have a full view of the surroundings, you’ll also know that the coolness of the vans is returning.
Vans are cool again, but life in a van can still be professional
A few years ago, Honda tried to remind us that pickup trucks were cool 30 to 50 years ago. There was a commercial reminding us how cool they were in movies and on TV. People also liked to customize them with cool graphics of gods and superheroes, among others. No matter how hard they tried, Honda just couldn’t bring back Cheech and Chong’s pickup truck magic. In 2009, pickup trucks were utility vehicles that only people who didn’t care what they drove would go for, and no nostalgia brought it back.
But now there’s Van Life™. Instead of making the exterior of the van cool and trendy, the interior is now the focus. You start with a work van, mainly because work vans give you plenty of interior space to build something really cool. Add insulation, thin wood panels, furniture and cabinets, a bed, maybe an air conditioner, solar power and batteries, and whatever else you want, and you have something great. unique, trendy and often useful. The exterior is often kept plain, but sometimes a fake business name and fake phone number adorn the side to improve stealth and make it easier to camp in urban areas without attracting the attention of cops and Karens.
Some people live in their custom vans, many use them as campers, but there are many other applications. Some people use their van as a mobile office, either to meet clients there or simply to take it to different places each day to maintain better mental health (especially during a pandemic). Others mix a work van with the traditional weekend and summer RV, creating a mobile office that gives them the ability to travel and get to work. It’s obviously popular with remote workers, but it’s also a great option for people looking for in-person work in more than one field.
Cost makes it hard to justify a Workamper van in 2022
It’s this hybrid work vehicle plus the accommodation layout that would do the most for me, but there’s a catch: Gas-powered vans are hard to fit into a budget now. When gasoline is $4-5/gallon, even in small towns in “overflight country”, and even more insane near the West Coast, it’s hard to make the numbers work for a pickup truck that’s supposed to times give you a place to sleep and get you to where the job is.
For me, the work I would like to pursue is in places like Moab, Utah. Google Maps says it’s 630 miles from home, or 1260 miles round trip. Add another 140 miles to get to various nearby trailheads, and we’re talking about 1,400 miles in total. With the most efficient large work/cargo vans converted to RVs indoors, one can reasonably expect to get around 20 MPG. So that’s 70 gallons of diesel fuel, which costs $5.15 a gallon in Albuquerque these days. It’s $360 in total.
But what if I take my 35 MPG VW Jetta with a bike rack instead? Instead of burning 70 gallons of diesel, I would need 40 gallons of regular unleaded. It currently costs $3.80/gallon in Albuquerque, for a total cost of $150. If I’m camping in a tent, it’s over $200 cheaper than taking a van. If I get a cheap hotel for a few nights, that’s pretty close to breaking even.
An electric van fixes this equation
This is where electric pickups could really shine. Not only are they coming out, but there’s a lot of potential to make an RV out of it, either commercially or DIY.
If I put the numbers in for the same trip, I think I could do the same round trip from El Paso to Moab using about 700 kWh of electricity (that’s about 2 miles per kWh). At Electrify America rates of $0.31/kWh, that’s $217, which is cheaper than diesel, and not much more than getting an economy car. Plus, you can choose your own mattress from a converted van instead of hoping the hotel won’t mess with your back.
If I take my time, I can enjoy free or cheaper charging along the way, which might lower the cost in economy car territory. How? Plugshare.com shows several level 2 stations (like home charging) that charge nothing along the route, some of them located in cool places like casinos or national parks/monuments. There are even a few free Level 3 DCFC stations here and there, including one in Moab. On top of that, I would add solar power to the van, which would both increase its efficiency (solar-powered air conditioning) and allow a tiny bit of level 1 charging to the battery.
The work I would do with such a van
For me, the biggest appeal of building a custom pickup truck is being able to make it do what I want it to do. There are plenty of motorhomes, but few of them are designed to carry e-bikes and other micromobilities for the exams I’d like to do in cool places.
But, I don’t want to go burn a bunch of diesel to show people how well an e-bike works in Moab and other cool places for a clean energy publication. Also, I think there are a lot of stories in the United States that just don’t get told because they’re “small” and don’t justify spending money on transportation and hotels. Having a lower cost option helps solve all of this.
To meet all of these needs, I would build something similar to the Wilderness Vans “TransMoto” interior, but in any electric pickup truck I could find.
I also have about 6kWh of lithium batteries and several hundred watts of solar ready to go, and I would make customizations to make it easier to go with kids and pets so I can be away more long and do more.
My pitch to van manufacturers
I could go into a lot more detail about the build I would be doing, but as the old OMC song goes, “Want to know what’s next?” Hey, buy the rights. If you work for Ford, Brightdrop, Rivian, Mercedes-Benz, or another company that makes electric work vans, I’d love to know how to get a van that we could be featured on here. Clean Technica. I don’t think a traditional media loan would work, as I would have to hack it and modify it to get the job done, unfortunately. So we’ll have to find another arrangement.
Showing the public that electric vans can be ideal for work, pleasure or both not only serves our mission here, but could also whet the appetite for many electric vans in the future. Not only could I show that it’s good for fun things like hauling bikes or being used as an RV, but I’d have other jobs around town with the family that we could test it with before we start documenting the construction .
I can be reached here or here if I haven’t already contacted him!
Featured Image: Ford E-Transit Van. Picture of Ford.
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