Russ Smith writes the Used Towcar Buying Guide for Practical Caravan. Something he said recently really stuck with me. When discussing the potential problems with the previous generation Kia Sedona, he mentioned rust. Unusual for a modern car.
“To be honest, electronics are the new rust,” Russ said with some authority. It made me think. My brother-in-law recently scrapped a late 1990s Vauxhall. The engine was fine, the body was good and it was comfortable and well equipped.
It just didn’t work.
Plugging a laptop into the car concluded that it needed a new body computer. This electrical ‘brain’ controls all aspects of the car’s function. Without it, his car is little more than a skip with windows. The £700 cost of a new control units meant the car was scrap.
But this has got nowt to do with caravans. Right? Well, that’s true at the moment.
Our friend electric?
Electrical complexity in caravans is already creeping up. An example is the good old chemical toilet. Service engineers tell us that failed printed circuit boards, bad connections and failed sensors are the main problems with modern caravan toilets. It’s a similar story with fridges. Modern ones are so much better than the old ones we struggled on with. These days, they choose the best power supply and are thermally very efficient. But they are much more complex, and generally, problems with them are electronic. Factor in alarms, tracking systems and entertainment systems and it’s evident that caravans are getting much more complex. And the logical next step is further integration of the electrical systems.
In fact, the Al-Ko ATC system holds a digital record of the number of times it operates as you go down the road. The next step, as with cars, commericals and even motorhomes now is a move to more intergrated systems.
This will mean a switch to what are called CANBUS wiring systems. Rather than using one circuit for each system, CANBUS integrates several systems onto a single circuit, typically using different voltages to complete different tasks. The whole lot is controlled by lots of electronic control units, talking to one another to make things work. It’s really clever stuff.
Great news in principle
In principle, this is great news. It would lead to less cabling in the caravan and that means less weight. Integrating electronics offers new opportunities to control all facets of the caravan from a single control panel. There are opportunities for security, too. We may even get to the stage we have with modern cars, where the only way to steal one is with the keys. Without the key, the car is just a glass and metal box.
Imagine if none of the caravan’s systems will work if the keys aren’t present – much like in a modern car or plush hotel room. If the security was hard-wired into a caravan’s ECU, it would make stealing one a pretty pointless exercise. Yes, you can pop it on a low-loader and physically steal it, but you won’t be able to turn on the fridge, boil the kettle or fire up the shower because you don’t have the keys.
While this all sounds great, the worry is not about when the system works. It’s when it doesn’t.
Electronics – the new damp?
For years, the thing that has finally seen to most caravans when they reach the end of their lives is damp. The van is willing, but the body becomes weak. With the advent of 10-year body warranties, I wonder whether, in years to come, Russ Smith’s reading of the car market may reflect the tourer market too.
Such ‘body control’ systems are already present in posher motorhomes and I’m sure caravans are next. Updating software will become as much of a service task as pressure testing the gas or adjusting the brakes.
But it remains to be seen whether failing electrical systems could render an otherwise sound tourer as scrap, long before it is ready to retire.