The Tesla Effect: Snowmobiles, Boats and Mowers Go Electric

STOWE, Vt. – Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack in this part of Vermont, which at worst breaks the silence of the jungle like a motorcycle on skis. But a motor sled bouncing along a forested mountain road in February was quiet except for the hustle and bustle of metal runners on the ice.

The machines, built by start-up Canadian company Taiga, were battery-powered – the first widely sold electric snowmobiles – and symbolized how all types of vehicles are moving towards emission-free propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of recreation where in some circles the gasoline version is considered a disaster.

While electric cars attract the most attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bicycles, scooters and all-terrain vehicles are on the rise. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars are winning in the auto world. Start-up companies have been attracting investors by claiming to be boating, cycling or lawn and garden industry teslas.

The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers generally do not have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy, and they often use low-quality fuel. According to the California Air Resources Board, a gasoline lawn mower produces as much pollution as a 300-mile car ride per hour.

California has passed a law banning gasoline-powered mowers starting in 2024 and all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. But even without government pressure, sales of electric options continue to grow.

One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which markets itself as an eco-conscious ski resort. David Norden, chief executive of Taos Ski Valley, said Taos ski patrol and trail maintenance workers would use electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or servicing ice-making equipment. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric snow-grooming machine made by German firm Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug.

Even if electric snowmobiles, which start at $ 17,500, are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, which can cost less than $ 10,000, the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance, Mr. Said Nord.

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

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

Buyers of electric lawns and garden equipment by research firm Fridonia Group cited noise reduction, lower maintenance costs and the need to keep gasoline cans in garages as their top priorities. Often electric leaf blowers or string trimmers are cheaper and lighter than the gasoline version.

The lawn and garden industry has become more electric than the car industry. According to Fridonia, in 2020, electric mowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17 percent of the United States. Electric vehicles account for more than three times the share of the US car market.

Many people are hesitant to buy an electric car because they are worried about running out of power. Anxiety of the series in the backyard is not a concern.

“You’re not worried about taking a road trip in a lawn mower,” said Jennifer Maps-Christ, manager of commercial and consumer products research at Fridonia.

But electrification of boats and other vehicles often presents technical challenges. Electrical energy works for small watercraft or boats that do not travel very far. This is the only option on hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are banned due to noise or pollution.

Because water is so resistant, however, large power boats require constant power, far beyond what batteries available today can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have been working on wind power for thousands of years.)

The battery is “part of the future answer but not necessarily the perfect answer,” said David Folkes, chief executive of Brunswick, which builds the Mercury Marine Engine.

However, Mercury has unveiled a prototype electric outboard motor and is carefully focusing on electrification.

“We intend to be at the forefront of this space,” he said. Folcase, which drives a battery-powered Porsche. “Even though the market is small at the moment, we want to stay there and see what the market does.”

Some engineers are taking advantage of the shift towards electrification to rethink design. The offshore racing series, known as the E1, which plans to launch staging events in Miami and other cities next year, will use a hydrofoil-powered battery-powered boat that will lift the hulls from the water, greatly reducing resistance.

“We have to change the pattern,” said Rody Baso, E1’s chief executive. “That’s what Tesla did.”

Just as Tesla has revolutionized the auto industry, start-ups are challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of the many companies trying to adapt electrical power to watercraft. With મદદ 15 million in venture capital, it plans to start selling electric outboard motors made at its plant in Bristol, RI this summer.

Ben Sorkin, chief executive of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, acknowledged that large offshore fishing boats and similar battery power were not practical. “Given what is available now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” he said. Said Sorkin.

But he said the market will expand as batteries improve and become more practical for larger and larger motors. Flux Marine’s largest motor is rated at 70 horsepower, and the number will continue to grow, Mr. Said Sorkin.

“Every five or so years, the sweet spot changes,” he said.

Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles and movers are slow to go electric. John Deere, the largest manufacturer of self-propelled mowers, does not offer battery-powered options but plans to discuss its electrification strategy with investors at an event on May 25-26.

The recent history of the auto industry can be a warning to established companies. Just as slow-moving car companies initially handed over territory to Tesla and are trying to capture it, new companies like Taiga are exploiting the open market.

Taiga chief executive Samuel Bruno said electrification of snowmobiles was a challenge because batteries and motors were needed to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.

“No one was coming into the space because it would need new technology,” he said. “This is an opportunity we have seen.”

The competition is coming. BRP, a Quebec-based company that makes ski-do snowmobiles as well as all-terrain vehicles and motorboats, has said it will offer electric versions of all its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market. Electric two-wheeler in 2024.

“There is a trend driven by automobiles,” said Jose Boisjoli, chief executive of BRP, the largest snowmobile maker. “We can’t ignore it.”

But he said the transition to entertainment will be much slower. For one thing, the markets are so small that it is difficult to achieve the cost savings that come with mass production. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021, compared to approximately 60 million cars.

And snowmobiles and powerboats do not receive government subsidies or tax breaks that could reduce the price of an electric car by thousands of dollars. Charging is also a problem in the jungle. Taiga has set up a charging station alongside the popular snowmobile trail network in Quebec and has made further plans.

But snowmobilers who venture deep into the wilderness will still prefer gasoline, Mr. Boisjoly said. “Combustion engines will no longer be present in snowmobiles,” he said.

Dominic Jacengello, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance snowmobilers, who could easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be suspicious.

However, Mr. Jacangello said he is eager to try Taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that will continue with anything else on the market,” he said.

Because electric snowmobiles are quiet, they can help reduce friction between snowmobilers and machines that are considered an insult to nature. It will open up more terrain for snowmobiles.

“Certainly,” said Mr. “Electric sleds will change a lot of environmentalists’ perspectives on snowmobiling,” Jacangello said.

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