The Tesla Effect | Snowmobiles, boats and mowers go electric

Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack. At their worst, they break the silence of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But motorized sleds bouncing along a wooded mountain trail in February were quiet save for the sound of metal runners on snow.

Posted yesterday at 11:45 a.m.

Jack Ewing
The New York Times

The machines, built by a young Canadian company, Taiga, were powered by batteries – the first electric snowmobiles sold on a large scale – and symbolize the way in which means of transport of all kinds are migrating towards emission-free propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of recreation where the gas-powered version is seen in some quarters as a bane.

Although electric cars are attracting the most attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bicycles, scooters and all-terrain vehicles are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are taking over the automotive world. Young companies are wooing investors claiming to be the Teslas of boating, cycling or lawn and garden care.

The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers are generally not equipped with catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy and often use lower quality fuel.

According to the California Air Resources Board, a gas-powered lawnmower generates as much pollution in an hour as a 300 mile car trip.

California has passed legislation to ban gas-powered lawn mowers starting in 2024, and all new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without the government’s push.

One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, which bills itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. Taos Ski Patrol and slope maintenance employees will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or servicing snowmaking equipment, said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski. Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric groomer built by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.

Although the electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, which can be had for less than $10,000, the station will save money on fuel and interview, Norden said.

“If you do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to breaking even,” he said. These are not only decisions for the environment, but also good decisions for our bottom line. »

But sometimes people convert to electric power because it offers practical benefits.

Buyers of electric lawn and garden equipment surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited reduced noise, low maintenance costs and the elimination of the need to store gas cans in the garage as their most important priorities. Often, electric leaf blowers or trimmers are cheaper and lighter than gas-powered versions.

The challenges of the boat

But electrifying boats and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electric power works for small craft or boats that don’t travel very far. This is the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are prohibited due to noise or pollution.

But because water creates a lot of resistance, large motorboats need more continuous power than current batteries can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have been powered by wind power for thousands of years.)

Batteries are “part of the answer going forward, but not necessarily the complete answer,” said David Foulkes, CEO of Brunswick, which makes Mercury marine engines.

Still, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard motor and is watching the shift to electrification carefully.

“We intend to be a leader in this area,” said Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. Even though the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market is doing. »

Samuel Bruneau, CEO of Taiga, said electrifying snowmobiles was a challenge because batteries and motors had to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.

“No one was coming into this market because it required new technology,” he said. This is the opportunity we saw. »

The competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that builds Ski-Doo snowmobiles as well as all-terrain vehicles and powerboats, said it will offer electric versions of all of its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a range of electric two-wheelers in 2024.


José Boisjoli, CEO of BRP

“There is a trend driven by the automobile,” said José Boisjoli, CEO of BRP, which is the largest manufacturer of snowmobiles. We cannot ignore it. »

But he added that the transition would be slower in the leisure sector. On the one hand, markets are much smaller, making it harder to realize the cost savings that come with mass production. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021, compared to around 60 million cars.

In addition, snowmobiles and motorboats do not benefit from government subsidies or tax breaks that can reduce the price of an electric car by several thousand dollars. Charging is also a problem in the woods. Taiga has installed charging stations along a busy snowmobile trail network in Quebec, and is planning more.

But snowmobilers who venture into the wilderness will always prefer gasoline, according to Mr. Boisjoli. “The combustion engine will be in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.

Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agrees that long-distance snowmobilers, who can easily cover more than 100 miles a day, will be skeptical.

Nonetheless, Mr. Jacangelo said he was eager to try a Taiga. “When it comes to performance, you have a sled that can rival any other on the market,” he said.

Since electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobilers and people who view these machines as an affront to nature. This would open up more terrain to snowmobiles.

“It is certain, says Mr. Jacangelo, that an electric sled will change the opinion of many environmentalists on the snowmobile. »

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