Electrics Everywhere - Now on the Mountains

Electrics Everywhere - Now on the Mountains

Thrashing through the snow on a 200-horsepower electric sled feels pretty good. It feels like skiing, if you happened to be skiing whilst straddling a 250-kilogram rocket.

The electric snowmobile from Montreal-based startup Taiga Motors looks like any other snowmobile to untrained eyes. Gently press your thumb onto the throttle and the machine is amiable and unintimidating, just as company co-founder Gabriel Bernatchez said it would be. It pulls away more smoothly and predictably than a typical gas-powered sled. The only noise is the sound of the tracks crunching snow. It makes this novice snowmobile rider feel confident and in control, or, at least initially.

But flick it into Sport mode, and you’d better have a firm grip on the handlebars. Give the throttle a confident jab, and the electric sled accelerates like a roof-less Tesla, with all the traction of a tank. It streaks forward through deep snow like some kind of apparition, leaving in its wake only a high-pitched killer-bee buzz and a rooster tail of fresh powder.

Its electric motor takes just 0.1 seconds to deliver full power, but you can’t physically press the thumb throttle fast enough to experience that, says Bernatchez, who is Taiga’s chief technical officer. The sled will do 0-100 km/h in around three seconds, which makes it quicker than most, maybe all, gas-powered sleds from established brands.

As Tesla has electrified the car market, Taiga Motors hopes to electrify the powersports market with its battery-powered snowmobiles and personal watercraft.

Bernatchez co-founded the company in 2015 along with Sam Bruneau and Paul Achard. The three met while at McGill University, working on a student project to create and race electric vehicles. After graduating, they knew they wanted to continue making electric vehicles, but unlike Elon Musk or Robert Bollinger or so many other founders of upstart EV companies, Bernatchez, Bruneau and Achard were not already rich.

“We didn’t have any money. We were students, and we didn’t come from rich families,” Bernatchez says. They put a few thousand dollars of their own money into the company in the early days to build the first prototype and set about attracting investors.

There are 1.2 million snowmobiles registered in the U.S., with another 600,000 registered in Canada, according to the International Snowmobile Manufactures Association (ISMA). Last year, 133,100 new snowmobiles were sold worldwide, of which 46,800 were bought in Canada.

The market is dominated by four major manufactures: BRP, Polaris, Arctic Cat and Yamaha, none of which yet offer an electric model.

Bernard Guy, senior VP for product strategy at Quebec-based BRP, said the company is exploring the potential of electrified snowmobiles but hasn’t committed to a timeline for producing one. “It’s all a matter of finding the right market segments for which the performance, range and charging time, and the cost all make sense. This may be limited to niche segments at first,” Guy said in an e-mail.

Sam Bruneau, co-founder and chief executive of Taiga Motors, sees potential to grow the snowmobile market with an electric sled.

“Hundreds of our reservation holders are people that don’t currently own snowmobiles but who used to snowmobile when they were younger,” Bruneau explains. “They don’t own one now because it’s loud, it pollutes, they don’t want to disturb their neighbours, and they’re kind of maintenance-heavy … electric allows them to get back into the sport.”

The company currently has more than 600 reservation holders who have placed $500 deposits.

Fleet and utility snowmobile users – ski hills and tour operators, for example – are a prime market as well, Bruneau says. The Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four mountains in Colorado, is getting a Taiga sled to test.

The rise of Tesla has been like a gateway drug for other e-things. “A lot of [reservation holders] are people who are buying Teslas and other electric cars, and they’re looking for other electric products,” explains Bruneau. People are becoming more comfortable with EV technology, he says.

Not all snowmobilers are convinced just yet, though.

John Enright has been riding (gas-powered) sleds for 30 years and is a director with the volunteer-run Haliburton County Snowmobile Association (HCSA).

“It’s going to take time for these to catch on,” Enright says of electric snowmobiles. “Are they going to be No. 1? No. Are they going to have their niche? Yes,” he says.

There’s a small but growing buzz around “e-sleds” in the enthusiast community, Enright explains. Taiga has been written about in snowmobile magazines, as has a company in Finland that’s converting a small number of gas sleds to electric. Enright thinks the HCSA’s 2,500 members are generally open to the idea of e-sleds, but expects their concerns would echo those of drivers considering an electric car: high prices, short range and a lack of charging infrastructure.

Taiga’s snowmobile starts at US$15,000 and has an estimated range of 100 km. On a 240-volt outlet, a charge would take two hours. On a DC fast-charger, it would take 20 minutes to refill the battery up to 80 per cent. Canadian prices will be announced at a later date, Bernatchez says.

“According to our market study, 80 per cent of people do less than 100 kilometres a day on a snowmobile,” says Bernatchez. He acknowledges that the range won’t be enough for everyone.

The range of electric vehicles often suffers in cold weather, which you’d imagine would be a major problem for snowmobiles. However, Bernatchez says Taiga developed a preheating system for the battery, so it only loses 10 per cent of its range at -40 C. If the sled is plugged in while preheating, you’d still get the full 100-km range, he says.

The first of Taiga’s electric snowmobiles should reach customers next winter.

“The goal is to launch higher-volume production in the coming year, and for that we’re putting together a big funding round at the moment,” says Bruneau, Taiga’s CEO. The company is aiming to produce 500 snowmobiles next year and ramp up from there.

Assembly will take place in Quebec in partnership with an existing tier-one manufacturer, Bruneau says, although he’s not willing to divulge who that is yet. Taiga’s personal watercraft (think: electric Sea-Doo) will be assembled in the same facility, making this a potentially year-round operation.

The company’s three founders have yet to strike it rich like Elon Musk, but they have so far raised “several million dollars,” according to Bruneau. That has been enough to fund prototypes, testing, begin low-volume production and grow the company to roughly a dozen employees.

Of all the vehicles it’s possible to electrify, snowmobiles seem especially ripe for it, given how much the sport is affected by climate change. Over the three decades he’s been riding, Enright says he has noticed the snowmobiling season in Ontario becoming shorter. There’s less snow, and it’s less predictable.

Enright won’t buy one of Taiga’s electric snowmobiles himself, at least not yet – he has nowhere to charge it – but he says e-sleds are the future. “They are where Tesla was 10 years ago,” he says.

Credit - the Globe and mail - Matt Bubbers

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