The Tesla Effect | Snowmobiles, boats and lawn mowers are going electric

Snowmobiles are part of the wintry soundtrack. At worst, they break through the silence of the forest like motorbikes on skis. But snowmobiles hopping down a forested mountain trail in February were silent, save for the sound of metal skids on snow.

Posted at 11:45am

Jack Ewing
The New York Times

Built by young Canadian company Taiga, the machines were battery-powered – the first electric snowmobiles to be sold in large numbers – and symbolize the journey in which all forms of transport are migrating to zero-emission propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of recreation where the gas-powered version is considered a bane in some circles.

Although electric cars are getting most of the attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bicycles, scooters, and ATVs are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are entering the automotive world. Young companies are courting investors who claim to be the Teslas of boating, bicycling, or lawn and garden maintenance.

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

According to the California Air Resources Board, a gasoline-powered lawnmower causes as much pollution in one hour as driving a 300-mile car.

California passed legislation banning gas-powered lawn mowers by 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 describes itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. Taos Ski Patrol and slope maintenance staff will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or maintaining snow machines, said Taos Ski Valley CEO David Norden. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to use an electric snow groomer built by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German company.

Though 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 saves money on fuel and interviews, Norden said.

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

But sometimes people switch to electric power because of the practical benefits it offers.

Buyers of electric lawn and garden equipment surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited less noise, low maintenance costs and eliminating the need to store gas cans in the garage as their top priorities. Electric leaf blowers or trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than petrol-powered versions.

The challenges of the boat

But the electrification of boats and other vehicles often brings with it technological challenges. Electric power works for small vehicles or boats that don’t go very far. This is the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are banned due to noise or pollution.

However, because water creates a lot of drag, large power boats require more continuous power than current batteries can provide. (Sailboats have, of course, been powered by wind power for thousands of years.)

Batteries are “part of the answer for the future, but not necessarily the complete answer,” said David Foulkes, CEO of Brunswick, the maker of Mercury marine engines.

Still, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard motor and is closely monitoring the transition to electrification.

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

Taiga CEO Samuel Bruneau said electrifying snowmobiles is challenging because batteries and motors must withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.

“No one came into this market because it required new technology,” he said. That’s the opportunity we saw. »

The competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that builds Ski-Doo snowmobiles as well as ATVs 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.


PHOTO ROBERT SKINNER, LA PRESSE ARCHIVE

Jose Boisjoli, CEO of BRP

“There is an automobile-driven trend,” said José Boisjoli, CEO of BRP, the largest manufacturer of snowmobiles. We can’t ignore it. »

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

Also, snowmobiles and motorboats don’t benefit from government subsidies or tax breaks, which can reduce the price of an electric car by several thousand dollars. Charging is also a problem in the forest. Taiga has installed charging stations along a busy snowmobile trail network in Quebec and plans to add more.

But snowmobilers venturing into the wilderness will always prefer petrol, according to Mr. Boisjoli. “The internal 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.

Despite this, Mr. Jacangelo said he was eager to try a taiga. “When it comes to performance, you have a sled that rivals any other on the market,” he said.

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

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

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