Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack. At their worst, they break the silence of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But the motor sleds that galloped along a wooded mountain pass in February were quiet except for the sound of metallic runners on the ice.
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The machines, made by a young Canadian company, Taiga, are battery-powered – the first mass-selling electric snowmobiles – and symbolize the way transportation of all kinds migrate toward zero-emissions propulsion. Taiga also offers a battery-powered personal watercraft, which is another form of entertainment where the gas-powered version is seen in some quarters as a curse.
Although electric cars are attracting the most attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bikes, scooters, and ATVs are proliferating. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric vehicles that dominate the motoring world. Young companies are wooing investors who claim to be Teslas for boating and cycling or lawn and gardening.
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 lawn mower generates as much pollution in an hour as a 300-mile car trip.
California has passed legislation to ban gas-powered lawn mowers from 2024, and all new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are increasing even without a government push.
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, was an early customer of snowmobiles in Taiga, which considers itself an eco-friendly ski resort. said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski. Valley, Taos Ski Patrol personnel and slope maintenance personnel will use electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or servicing snowmaking equipment. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric shaver made by German company Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug.
Norden said that although 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 interviews.
“If you do a cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably on the verge of breaking even,” he said. These are not only decisions about the environment, but also decisions that are good for our bottom line. »
But sometimes people turn to electric power because it offers practical benefits.
Electric lawn and garden equipment buyers surveyed by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited reduced noise, lower maintenance costs and eliminating the need to store gas cans in the garage as their top priorities. Electric blowers or trimmers are often cheaper and lighter than gas-powered versions.
But electrification of boats and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electric power works for small craft or boats that do not travel long distances. This is the only option on hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are prohibited due to noise or pollution.
But because water creates a great deal of resistance, large kayaks need more continuous power than current batteries can provide. (Of course, sailboats have been powered by wind power for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer for the future, but not necessarily the full answer,” said David Foulkes, chief executive of Brunswick, which makes Mercury marine engines.
However, Mercury has unveiled a prototype of an outboard electric motor and is carefully monitoring the transition to electricity.
“We intend to be a leader in this field,” said Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. Although the market is small at the moment, we want to be there and see what the market does. »
Samuel Bruno, CEO of Taiga, said the electric snowmobiles were a challenge because the batteries and motors had to withstand extreme temperatures and rough terrain.
“No one was entering 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 makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles as well as all-terrain vehicles and speedboats, 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 wheels in 2024.
“There is a trend that cars are driving,” said José Boisjoli, CEO of BRP, the largest manufacturer of snowmobiles. We cannot ignore it. »
But he added that the transition would be slower in the entertainment sector. On the other hand, markets are much smaller, which makes it difficult to realize the cost savings that come with mass production. Less than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021, compared to about 60 million vehicles.
Additionally, snowmobiles and motorboats do not benefit from government subsidies or tax credits that could lower the price of an electric vehicle by several thousand dollars. Shipping is also a problem in the woods. Taiga has installed charging stations along a network of crowded snowmobile trails in Quebec, and plans more.
But snowmobiles venturing into the wild will always prefer gasoline, according to Mr. Boisjoli. “The combustion engine will be in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jackangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agrees that long-distance snow riders, who can easily cover more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
However, Mr. Jacangelo said he was keen to try out the taiga. “When it comes to performance, you have a sled that can rival any other sled on the market,” he said.
Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they can help reduce friction between snowmobiles and people who view these machines as an affront to nature. This will unlock more terrain for snowmobiles.
“It is certain, says Mr. Jacangelo, that the electric sled will change the opinion of many environmentalists about the snowmobile.”
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