The Tesla Effect: Snowmobiles, Boats and Mowers Go Electric – The New York Times
They’re quieter and better for the climate. But snow and water create new technological challenges for designers.
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By Jack Ewing
STOWE, Vt. — Snowmobiles are part of the winter soundtrack in this part of Vermont, at their worst shattering the stillness of the forest like motorcycles on skis. But the motorized sleds bouncing along a wooded mountain trail in February were silent except for the whoosh of metal runners on snow.
The machines, made by a start-up Canadian company, Taiga, were battery-powered — the first electric snowmobiles to be sold widely — and symbols of how conveyances of all kinds are migrating to emission-free propulsion. Taiga is also offering battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of recreation where the gasoline version is regarded in some circles as a scourge.
While electric cars get most of the 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 conquering the auto world. Start-up companies are wooing investors by claiming to be the Teslas of the boating, cycling, or lawn and garden industry.
The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawn mowers do not usually have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy, and they often use lower-quality fuel. A gasoline lawn mower generates as much pollution in an hour as a 300-mile car trip, according to the California Air Resources Board.
California has passed legislation to ban gasoline-powered mowers beginning in 2024, and all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are growing even without a push from government.
One of the first customers for Taiga snowmobiles was Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which markets itself as an environmentally conscious ski resort. The Taos ski patrol and trail maintenance workers will use the electric snowmobiles for tasks like transporting injured skiers or servicing snow-making equipment, said David Norden, the chief executive of Taos Ski Valley. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric snow-grooming machine made by Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug, a German firm.
Even if the electric snowmobiles, which start at $17,500, are more expensive than gasoline counterparts, which can be had for less than $10,000, the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance, Mr. Norden said.
“You do the cost-benefit analysis, you’re probably close to break even,” he said. “These are not only decisions for the environment but also good decisions for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people are converting to electrical power because it offers practical advantages.
Buyers of electric lawn and garden equipment polled by the Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited noise reduction, low maintenance costs and no need to store cans of gasoline in the garage as their most important priorities. Often electric leaf blowers or string trimmers are cheaper and lighter than gasoline versions.
The lawn and garden industry has gone electric faster than the car industry. In 2020, electric mowers, leaf blowers and other equipment accounted for 17 percent of the market in the United States, according to Freedonia. That’s more than three times the share of electric vehicles in the U.S. car market.
Many people are hesitant to buy an electric car because they worry about running out of power far from a charger. Range anxiety is not a concern in the backyard.
“You’re not worried about taking a road trip in a lawn mower,” said Jennifer Mapes-Christ, manager of commercial and consumer products research at Freedonia.
But electrifying boats and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electrical energy works for smaller watercraft or boats that do not travel very far. It’s the only option on the hundreds of lakes where conventional outboard motors are banned because of noise or pollution.
Because water creates so much resistance, however, big power boats require amounts of continuous power that are beyond what batteries available today can provide. (Sailboats, of course, have operated on wind power for thousands of years.)
Batteries are “part of the answer to the future but not necessarily the complete answer,” said David Foulkes, the chief executive 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 space,” said Mr. 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 does.”
Some engineers are taking advantage of the shift to electrification to rethink design. An offshore racing series known as E1, which plans to begin staging events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with hydrofoils that lift the hulls above the water, greatly reducing resistance.
“We have to change the paradigm,” said Rodi Basso, the chief executive of E1. “This is what Tesla has done.”
Just as Tesla has upended the auto industry, start-up firms are challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of several companies trying to adapt electrical power for watercraft. With the help of $15 million in venture capital, it plans to begin selling electric outboard motors made at a plant in Bristol, R.I., this summer.
Ben Sorkin, the chief executive of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, conceded that battery power was not practical for large offshore fishing boats and the like. “Given what’s available right now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” Mr. Sorkin said.
But he said the market would expand as batteries improved and became practical for bigger and bigger motors. Flux Marine’s biggest motor is rated at 70 horsepower, and the numbers will continue to rise, Mr. Sorkin said.
“Every five or so years, the sweet spot shifts up,” he said.
Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles and mowers have been slow to go electric. John Deere, the largest manufacturer of self-propelled mowers, does not offer battery-powered alternatives but plans to discuss its electrification strategy with investors at an event May 25-26.
The recent history of the auto industry could serve as a warning to the established companies. Just as slow-moving car companies initially ceded territory to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are exploiting wide-open markets.
Samuel Bruneau, Taiga’s chief executive, said electrifying snowmobiles was a challenge because the batteries and motors needed to cope with extreme temperatures and bumpy terrain.
“No one was coming into that space, because it would require new technology,” he said. “That is the opportunity we saw.”
Competition is coming. BRP, a company based in Quebec that makes Ski-Doo 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 with a line of electric two-wheelers in 2024.
“There is a trend out there driven by the automobile,” said José Boisjoli, the chief executive of BRP, which is the largest snowmobile maker. “We can’t ignore it.”
But he said the transition would happen more slowly in recreation. For one thing, the markets are much smaller, making it harder to achieve the cost savings that come with mass production. Fewer than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold worldwide in 2021, compared with roughly 60 million cars.
And snowmobiles and powerboats don’t receive the government subsidies or tax breaks that can cut thousands of dollars off the price of an electric car. Charging is also an issue in the woods. Taiga has installed charging stations alongside a popular snowmobile trail network in Quebec, and plans more.
But snowmobilers who venture deep into the wilderness will still prefer gasoline, Mr. Boisjoli said. “The combustion engine will be present in snowmobiles for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance snowmobilers, who can easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.
Still, Mr. Jacangelo said he was eager to try out a Taiga. “In terms of performance, you’ve got a sled that will keep up with anything else out there on the market,” he said.
Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they could help reduce friction between snowmobilers and people who consider the machines an affront to nature. That would open up more terrain for snowmobiles.
“Certainly,” Mr. Jacangelo said, “an electric sled is going to change a lot of environmentalists’ view of snowmobiling.”
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May 15, 2022 at 03:27PM