The Tesla Effect: Electric Snowmobiles, Boats, and Mowers

STOWE, Vt.; Snowmobiles are part of this part of Vermont’s winter soundtrack, working at their worst to shatter the stillness of the woods like motorcycles on sleds. But the motor sleds that galloped along a wooded mountain pass in February were silent except for the metallic snowboard runners’ showers.

The machines, made by a Canadian start-up, Taiga, were battery-powered – the first mass-selling electric snowmobiles – and symbols of how transportation of all kinds would transition to zero-emissions propulsion. Taiga also offers battery-powered personal watercraft, another form of entertainment where the gasoline version is seen in some circles as a disaster.

While electric cars get the most attention, electric lawn mowers, boats, bikes, scooters, and all-terrain vehicles are popular. In some categories, battery-powered machines are gaining market share faster than electric cars that are conquering the automotive world. Start-ups woo investors by claiming to be the Teslas of the boat, biking, lawn and garden maker.

The environmental benefits are potentially significant. Unlike cars and trucks, outboard motors or lawnmowers usually do not have catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions. They are noisy, and often use low-quality fuel. Gasoline-powered lawn mowers generate as much pollution in one hour as a 300-mile car trip, according to the California Air Resources Board.

California has passed legislation to ban gasoline-powered mowers from 2024, and all new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. But sales of electric alternatives are increasing even without a government push.

Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico was one of the first customers of snowmobiles in Taiga, which is marketing itself as an eco-friendly ski resort. David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, said Taos Ski Patrol and trail maintenance workers will use electric snowmobiles for tasks such as transporting injured skiers or maintaining snowmaking equipment. When skiing resumes this year, Taos also plans to deploy an electric snow care machine made by German company Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeug.

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

“You’re doing a cost-benefit analysis,” he said, “you’re probably on the verge of breaking even.” “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 advantages.

Electric lawn and garden equipment buyers surveyed by Freedonia Group, a research firm, cited reducing noise, lower maintenance costs, and no need to store cans of petrol in the garage as their top priority. Electric leaf blowers or thread blowers are often cheaper and lighter than gasoline versions.

The lawn and garden industry has become electrified faster than the automobile industry. In 2020, electric mowers, leaf blowers, and other equipment made up 17 percent of the market in the United States, according to Fredonia. That’s more than three times the share of electric cars in the US auto market.

Many people are hesitant to buy an electric car because they are worried about running out of power from the charger. Range anxiety isn’t a backyard concern.

“You’re not worried about taking a road trip in a lawn mower,” said Jennifer Maps Crest, director of commercial and consumer product research at Freedonia.

But electrification of boats and other vehicles often presents technological challenges. Electric power works for boats or small boats that do not travel long distances. It’s the only option on hundreds of lakes where traditional outboard motors are blocked due to noise or pollution.

Because water creates a great deal of resistance, larger boats require more continuous power than the batteries available today can provide. (Of course, sailboats have run on wind power for thousands of years.)

Batteries are “part of the answer to the future but not necessarily the whole 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 leaders in this field,” said Mr. Foulkes, who drives a battery-powered Porsche. “Even if the market is small right now, we want to be there and see what the market does.”

Some engineers are taking advantage of the switch to electrification to rethink design. The marine racing series known as E1, which plans to start organizing events in Miami and other cities next year, will use battery-powered boats equipped with watercraft that lift hulls above water, significantly reducing resistance.

“We have to change the paradigm,” said Rudy Basu, CEO of E1. “That’s what Tesla did.”

Just as Tesla has upended the auto industry, so are startups challenging companies that have long dominated their markets. Flux Marine is one of several companies trying to adapt the electric power of watercraft. With the help of $15 million in venture capital, it plans to start selling electric outboard motors made at a plant in Bristol, RI, this summer.

Ben Sorkin, CEO of Flux Marine, who was a summer intern at Tesla, admitted that battery power was not practical for large offshore fishing boats and the like. “Given what is available now, electric propulsion is a niche market,” said Mr. Sorkin.

But he said the market would expand as batteries improved and became practical for larger and larger engines. Flux Marine’s largest engine is rated at 70 horsepower, and the numbers will continue to rise, said Mr. Sorkin.

“Every five years or so, the beautiful place changes,” he said.

Major manufacturers of boats, snowmobiles, and mowers have been slow to switch to electric. John Deere, the largest maker of self-propelled mowers, is not offering battery-powered alternatives but plans to discuss its electric strategy with investors at an event on May 25-26.

The recent history of the auto industry can serve as a warning to established companies. Just as slow-moving car companies initially ceded their territory to Tesla and are trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are taking advantage of the wide open markets.

Samuel Bruno, CEO of Taiga, said snowmobile electrification was a challenge because the batteries and motors needed to handle extreme temperatures and rough terrain.

“No one was coming into this space, because it would require 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 motorboats, has said it will offer electric versions of all of its products by 2026. The company also plans to enter the motorcycle market with a two-wheeled electric line in 2024.

“There is an automobile-driven overseas trend,” said José Boisjoli, chief executive of BRP, the largest snowmobile maker. “We can’t ignore it.”

But he said the transition would happen more slowly at leisure. For one thing, the 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.

Snowmobiles and speedboats do not receive the government subsidies or tax credits that could cut thousands of dollars off the price of an electric vehicle. Shipping is also a problem in the woods. Taiga has installed charging stations alongside Quebec’s popular snowmobile trail network, and plans more.

But snow riders who venture deeper into the wilderness still prefer petrol, said 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, agreed that long-distance snow riders, who can easily travel more than 100 miles a day, would be skeptical.

However, Mr. Jacangelo said he was keen to try Taiga. “In terms of performance, you have a sled that keeps pace with anything else on the market,” he said.

Because electric snowmobiles are quieter, they may help reduce friction between snowmobiles and people who consider machines an affront to nature. This will unlock more terrain for snowmobiles.

“Certainly, the electric skate is going to change the view of many environmentalists of ice skating,” said Mr. Jacangelo.

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