RV AV - The Holy Grail

Having just finished two stories on electronic entertainment in RVs it got me thinking more deeply about how unsatisfying the whole consumer electronic experience is. Since I figured out how to mount an oval rear deck speaker with a fader switch in the back of my first car (a 1960 Studebaker Lark), I've always enjoyed the challenge and frequent frustration of putting together a home sound and, years later, video system.

My wife Terry has generally been the beneficiary of my restlessness to adopt and adapt to new technologies. She enjoys the latest wonders and marvels our home and our RV are stuffed with as long as they work easily. And that's the problem -- they often don't. Which remote do I use? What button do I push? I've heard those questions continually over the years.

At least things have gotten a little better in the living room at our home with an expensive Bose soundbar and integrated receiver unit that ties our Tivo, AppleTV, and Blu-ray seamlessly together. All the built-in intelligence in our 60" flat screen simply lays dormant as the Bose does all the controlling (with one very well designed remote).

I've been in some multi-million dollar homes that have electronic automation ranging upwards of six figures, yet for all the appearance of "touch screen simplicity" they require the owners to learn about the various features. And that same "luxury" thinking permeates the ultra-luxury motorhome market. More often than not I've been in super high end coaches where the owners watch TV listening through their mediocre TV speakers because the home stereo components are hidden away and are just too much of a pain, or complicated, to use.

For now it's an impossible-to-win situation for all motorhome manufacturers. There are so many choices in gear and so many user opinions its hard to guess which Swiss-army knife of features you need to include. I've been at RV rallies where I've heard some owners say, "Why would anyone want to have a TV in their RV when you're trying to get away from it all." It's certainly easy to understand that conclusion if you're a passionate reader, or really to like to use your RV to get away from modern life.

On the other end of that scale are people like us who see our RV life as an extension of our daily routine while we travel. We like our daily connections to news and entertainment in print, sound and picture. But to enjoy that wide range of options we now add another layer of complexity: internet connectivity.

Our Navion has two entertainment systems (in-dash and in-cabinet) that basically replicate the same functions. I think this represents the heritage of the industry that builds a mashup of a vehicle and a house. Auto manufacturers aren't worried about galleys and couches so their vision for electronics is more highly focused. We used to have a Mazda 3 a few years ago and I was blown away at the quality of the Bose stereo it had, yet this was a very mid-priced car. Similarly, our son's brand new Hyundai Elantra has a very good sound system with a big touchscreen GPS, bluetooth and other automation features that, only a few years ago you'd only find in the highest end cars costing more than $50,000.

The auto manufacturers are just starting to ship cars that your iPhone or Android will deeply interface with including GPS and other car functions (beyond phone calls and streaming music). Ultimately that means what you learn to use on your phone becomes the familiar way of controlling features in your car -- mercifully, one less thing to learn.

RV manufacturers are essentially component assemblers and are limited by their choice of third-party products on the market. From my tech viewpoint the best RV infotainment solutions should come from the mobile electronics world, not the home one. Mobile infotainment systems are far better suited for the RV experience, but they do have one big shortcoming: they don't integrate video such as switching between antenna/cable/satellite inputs and driving the picture to large screen monitors.

Even companies as large as Winnebago don't have the volume that can justify the development and manufacturing of customized electronics that straddle both the automotive and home world. But the industry, on the whole, does. For now, all we can do is keep our fingers crossed that some enterprising electronics manufacturer sees the opportunity and offers up an intuitive product so my wife won't have to read a manual or ask me how to switch from Pandora to CNN.