The Tesla Effect: Electric Snowmobiles, Boats and Lawnmowers
They make less noise and are better for the environment. But snow and water give designers new problems to solve with technology.
In this part of Vermont, snowmobiles are a part of the winter soundscape. At their worst, they sound like motorcycles on skis and break up the quiet of the forest. But the only sound the motorized sleds made as they bounced along a wooded mountain trail in February was the sound of the metal runners on the snow.
The machines were made by a new Canadian company called Taiga. They were powered by batteries and were the first electric snowmobiles to be sold widely. They were also examples of how vehicles of all kinds are moving toward cleaner ways to move. Taiga also sells battery-powered personal watercraft. The gasoline-powered version of these boats is seen as a nuisance by some people.
Most of the attention goes to electric cars, but electric lawn mowers, boats, bicycles, scooters, and all-terrain vehicles are becoming more and more common. In some categories, battery-powered machines are taking over the market faster than electric cars are. Investors are being wooed by new companies that say they are the Teslas of the boating, cycling, or lawn and garden industries.
There could be a lot of good for the environment. Most outboard motors and lawn mowers don’t have catalytic converters to cut down on harmful emissions like cars and trucks do. They make a lot of noise and often use fuel that isn’t as good. The California Air Resources Board says that a gasoline lawn mower makes as much pollution in an hour as a car trip of 300 miles.
California has passed a law that will ban gas-powered lawn mowers starting in 2024 and all new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. But even without help from the government, sales of electric alternatives are growing.
Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, which bills itself as an eco-friendly ski resort, was one of the first places to buy Taiga snowmobiles. David Norden, the CEO of Taos Ski Valley, said that the electric snowmobiles will be used by the ski patrol and people who keep the trails in good shape to do things like transport injured skiers or fix snow-making equipment. When skiing starts up again this year, Taos plans to use an electric snow groomer made by the German company Kassbohrer Gelandefahrzeug.
Even though electric snowmobiles start at $17,500 and gasoline ones can be bought for less than $10,000, Mr. Norden said the resort will save money on fuel and maintenance.
“If you look at the costs and benefits, you’re probably pretty close to even,” he said. “Not only are these choices good for the environment, but they are also good for our bottom line.”
But sometimes people switch to electricity because it makes more sense in the real world.
A research firm called the Freedonia Group asked people who bought electric lawn and garden tools what was most important to them. The most common answers were less noise, low maintenance costs, and not having to store gas cans in the garage. Leaf blowers and string trimmers that run on electricity are often cheaper and lighter than those that run on gasoline.
The lawn and garden business has switched to electric more quickly than the car business. Freedonia says that electric lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other tools will make up 17 percent of the market in the United States in 2020. That’s more than three times as many as the number of electric cars sold in the U.S.
People are afraid to buy an electric car because they don’t want to run out of power when they are far from a charger. In the backyard, there is no need to worry about range anxiety.
Jennifer Mapes-Christ, manager of commercial and consumer products research at Freedonia, said, “You don’t have to worry about going on a road trip in a lawn mower.”
But there are often technical problems when boats and other vehicles are made electric. Smaller boats or watercraft that don’t go very far can use electrical power. It’s the only option on the hundreds of lakes where noise or pollution make regular outboard motors illegal.
But because water makes so much resistance, big power boats need a lot of power all the time that today’s batteries can’t provide. (Sailboats have used wind power for thousands of years, of course.)
David Foulkes, the CEO of Brunswick, which makes the Mercury marine engine, said that batteries are “part of the answer to the future, but not necessarily the whole answer.”
Mr. Foulkes, who drives a Porsche that runs on batteries, said, “We want to be the leader in this space.” “Even though the market isn’t very big right now, we want to be there to see what happens.”
Some engineers are using the switch to electric power to rethink how things are made. The E1 offshore racing series will start holding races in Miami and other cities next year. The boats will be powered by batteries and have hydrofoils that lift the hulls out of the water, which makes them much faster.
“We need to change the way things are done,” said Rodi Basso, the CEO of E1. “That’s what Tesla did.”
In the same way that Tesla has changed the auto industry, new companies are taking on companies that have dominated their markets for a long time. Flux Marine is one of many companies that are trying to use electricity to power boats. It plans to start selling electric outboard motors made at a plant in Bristol, Rhode Island, this summer with the help of $15 million in venture capital.
Ben Sorkin, the CEO of Flux Marine and a former summer intern at Tesla, said that battery power wasn’t a good choice for big boats like fishing boats that go out to sea. Mr. Sorkin said, “Given what we have now, electric propulsion is a niche market.”
But he said that the market would grow as batteries got better and more motors could use them. Mr. Sorkin said that Flux Marine’s biggest motor has a rating of 70 horsepower, and that number will keep going up.
“The sweet spot moves up about every five years,” he said.
The big companies that make boats, snowmobiles, and lawn mowers have been slow to switch to electric. John Deere is the biggest maker of self-propelled lawn mowers. It does not offer battery-powered alternatives, but on May 25 and 26, it will host an event for investors to talk about its plan to make its mowers electric.
The recent history of the auto industry could be a lesson for companies that are already doing well. Just like slow-moving car companies gave Tesla their market share at first and are now trying to catch up, new companies like Taiga are taking advantage of markets that are wide open.
Samuel Bruneau, the CEO of Taiga, said that putting electric motors and batteries in snowmobiles was hard because the batteries and motors had to be able to handle cold temperatures and rough terrain.
He said, “No one was going into that space because it would need new technology.” “That’s the chance we saw,” she said.
Coming up is competition. BRP, which is based in Quebec and makes Ski-Doo snowmobiles, ATVs, and motorboats, has said that by 2026, all of its products will be available in electric versions. In 2024, the company also plans to sell a line of electric two-wheeled motorcycles.
The CEO of BRP, which makes the most snowmobiles, José Boisjoli, said, “There is a trend out there that is driven by the car.” “We can’t look away.”
But he said that the change would take longer in recreation. One reason is that the markets are much smaller, which makes it harder to save money through mass production. In 2021, less than 135,000 snowmobiles were sold around the world, while about 60 million cars were sold.
And snowmobiles and powerboats don’t get the tax breaks or government subsidies that can cut the price of an electric car by thousands of dollars. In the woods, charging is also a problem. Taiga has put charging stations along a popular network of snowmobile trails in Quebec, and they plan to put more in the future.
Mr. Boisjoli said that snowmobilers who go deep into the woods will still prefer gasoline. “Snowmobiles will have combustion engines for a long time,” he said.
Dominic Jacangelo, the head of the New York State Snowmobile Association, agreed that long-distance snowmobilers, who can easily travel more than 100 miles in a day, would be skeptical.
Even so, Mr. Jacangelo said he couldn’t wait to try a Taiga. He said, “As far as performance goes, your sled can keep up with anything else on the market.”
Electric snowmobiles are quieter than gas-powered ones, which could help snowmobilers get along with people who think the machines are bad for nature. That would give snowmobiles more room to move around.
Mr. Jacangelo said, “Of course, an electric sled will make a lot of environmentalists think differently about snowmobiling.”