With 46-inch tires and a diesel engine shared with construction equipment, the EcoRoamer looks and sounds terrifying. Its size belies its sophistication — it also uses a NASA-designed water-purifying system and broadcasts WiFi a mile-wide. Let's take a look inside.
When the apocalypse comes, buy, steal, or a hitch your way into a ride in an EcoRoamer. From the outside, it looks ready to tackle mutant zombie hordes. On the inside it's like a trendy loft, complete with wireless computing, shower, kitchen and all the other necessities of modern life. This is the most exciting development in end-of-days transportation since the debut of the best Post-Apocalyptic vehicles list.
Designed by Jay Shapiro, an interactive advertising pioneer who sold his company to cross the globe, the EcoRoamer isn't a home-away-from-home. It's his family's only home. Shapiro recently began a journey that will take him, his wife, his two cats, and his two kids from Alaska to the tip of South America and then on to Africa. From there, they'll cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe, heading through Russia to Mongolia and Asia.
This isn't just some retired ad exec's globe-trotting vacation — Shapiro is attempting to traverse the planet without damaging it. And the EcoRoamer isn't just hell on wheels, it's at the forefront of a growing movement to tread lightly and "use what you know to do good as you go." The living space is built almost entirely from recycled materials, the truck uses solar panels for most of its auxiliary power, and its massive diesel engine runs on biodiesel.
A regular heavy-duty truck is fine if you're crisscrossing Canada, but circumnavigating the earth means that you'll need to find parts in remote places like the Tierra del Fuego. And good luck finding a Dodge dealership in Ulan Bator.
For this reason, the EcoRoamer's cab and chassis are modified Ford F-650 parts, the same used for massive commercial trucks. Its powerplant is a Caterpillar C7 diesel engine. The goal is to run the vehicle on biodiesel (up to B100) whenever possible, focusing on blends refined from non-foodstock plant life. When biodiesel isn't available, the Cat engine can also run on dino juice. With two tanks holding a total of 130 gallons of fuel and 6.5-mpg efficiency, the Shapiros can traverse more than 750 miles without refueling.
Anywhere you can find a bulldozer, excavator, or tractor, there's a Caterpillar dealer. This gives Shapiro access to parts in nearly 130 countries, and if worse comes to worse, the ability to snag a filter off a local backhoe. The C7 produces around 350 hp and 850 lb-ft of torque in its current trim, giving it enough juice to drive a 34,000-pound truck across wide American interstates at highway speeds or climb up a steep mountain grade in Kenya.
Because F-650s aren't offered with four-wheel drive, Shapiro extended the truck's frame to suit and modified it to accept a 14,000-lb Meritor front axle. To accommodate the new drivetrain the whole things is raised significantly, giving it the towering appearance. Even when fully loaded, the EcoRoamer offers more ground clearance than most factory-built 4x4s.
The video above shows it off-roading (of sorts) in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Though the truck is capable of crossing mean terrain, Shapiro says he has "no plans to take it rock-crawling on the Rubicon."
The cab is loaded with communications equipment operating through a Windows XP-powered Panasonic ToughBook mounted next to the driver's seat. When I asked Shapiro why he's still using the older operating system, he just smiled and said "stable." The computer is connected to the Internet via a 3G modem chained to a massive router and several antennae, and it pumps out a WiFi signal with a 0.8-mile range. The system's air cards can be swapped out for use in other countries, and Shapiro plans to use a satellite-based setup for places where that isn't an option.
No apocalyptic overland vehicle can carry such a name without a radio; the EcoRoamer has a CB/VHF unit for communicating with other travelers, emergency services, and truckers. With a pair of rear-mounted Recaro child seats are hooked up with airliner-style desks and headrest DVD players, the interior offers a comfortable and cozy space that resembles that of a modern SUV. Well... a modern SUV with a litterbox behind the back seats.
How does a family of four with two cats survive in a space approximately seventeen feet long? Two words: extreme ergonomics. Using the yacht industry for inspiration, Shapiro designed the EcoRoamer's cabin with three objectives in mind: comfort, storage, and reliability.
The comfort part is easily visible when I step through the cabin's rear door — the truck's insides really do look like a nice, modern loft. Most of the surfaces are covered with PlyBoo, a soft synthetic plywood made from bamboo, or composites made from recycled paper. Immediately in front of the door is a nice seating area with a table and a small library nook. Press a button on the wall and a full-size bed drops from the roof to create the "master bedroom." Underneath the table is a giant freezer capable of holding a month's worth of frozen entrees from Trader Joe's.
As for storage, the the first half of the starboard wall is covered in panels with slide-out shelving; it holds everything from the master electrical control panel to Kashi crackers. As you walk toward the cab there are two small fridges, there for redundancy and reliability. Opposite this wall is a nicely appointed, dorm-style kitchen with a two-burner electric stove, a working sink, and a convection/microwave dual oven. Above that is a networked printer, a router, and a four-terabyte hard drive. Under one of the attractive black counter tops is a combination clothes washer and dryer. Shapiro calls it a "luxury."
Fore of the kitchen there's a large bathroom complete with a shower and composting toilet (as in most overland vehicles, the shower and toilet share the same floor space). It's relatively roomy for its size, offering a few square feet of usable space. The composting toilet was chosen because Shapiro likes the 'tread lightly' camping philosophy — 'Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints' — and because, he says, "dumping our sewage in pristine campsites around the world doesn't fit well with our ideals." Liquid waste and gray (i.e., post-wash) water is slowly dumped onto the exhaust for conversion into steam vapor. It's kind of gross, but it's good for the environment.
The kids sleep above the cab on two child-sized single beds separated by a few feet. The setup has a certain "Malcolm in the Middle" quality to it, but it's completely workable. I started to feel a bit sorry for the kids until Shapiro pushed the roof upwards (by hand, no power system is involved), giving the sleepers more space to sit up and stretch out. Then he opened one of the walls out onto the roof, which is covered in diamond plate and solar panels. When an oaky breeze drifted into the cabin, all I felt was envy.
For more sleeping areas, or just a place to hang out, the rear wall folds out to create a covered patio area that can also be enclosed. It's perfect for tailgating and was reportedly a hit when Shapiro tested the truck in New Orleans during the Saints' Super Bowl triumph. The driver's-side wall also opens in one spot, revealing a fold-out panel large enough to hold a full-size air mattress. All told, the truck can sleep eight people or ten really good friends.
In theory, some of this could be duplicated with a box truck (there'd be more space, for sure). What sets the EcoRoamer apart from similar vehicles are its sophisticated and robust living systems. While there's a backup diesel generator for emergencies, the roof is covered with approximately two kilowatts' worth of solar panels capable of running every system on the vehicle. The washing machine is the only component on the truck that requires use of the generator for operation, though that can run off of the alternator.
For comfort, the EcoRoamer's cabin walls are constructed from two inches of recycled foam board sandwiched between thin layers of aluminum. All the windows are equipped with mosquito nets so they can be opened to pump in cool or warm air as needed with solar-powered exhaust fans. The diesel water heater can run on biodiesel; and it can also pump water back to the engine to heat it in extremely cold conditions.
Because you can't find clean water everywhere, the EcoRoamer purifies its own supply. It can store 150 gallons of water while on the road. The purification system was designed by NASA for space flight, and it uses five filters to turn almost anything liquid into potable water. The truck can even recycle liquid waste into drinkable water, though the Shapiros don't plan on making use of the capability. Open up the side of the truck out back and there are two faucets marked "pond in" and "village out." The family's goal is to clean well or pond water for anyone who needs it as they travel.
With an only partially ironic fixation on the end times, I may be focused on preparing my body for the Thunderdome (for that is the new law), but Shapiro and his family are really planning to do good. Their efforts are funneled through the Muskoka Foundation, a non-profit he founded to help others do the same. Since most overland explorers are fairly affluent individuals with practical skill sets — doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. — Shapiro feels that those people should do more than take pictures and surf when visiting new lands. One of these programs involves creating a "village MBA" aimed at bringing modern business techniques and tools to entrepreneurs in remote locations so that they can expand and improve their businesses.
The EcoRoamer is an open-source project, so if you're committed to doing good while living the overland lifestyle you can build your own or have the Shapiros help you create one. And committed you're going to want to be: an EcoRoamer as outfitted here starts at around $275,000.
"That's the price of a nice house!" I say when Jay tells me.
"This is a nice house," he replies.