A team of engineers in Montreal is building what they call the world’s first all-electric snowmobile, the TS2—a machine that can go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and travels 100 kilometers (62 miles) on a single charge.It comes at a time when snowmobile bans and strict regulations in national parks and forests in North America and Europe have either been enforced, or are under consideration. Motivated by environmental concerns, ski hills and recreational riders are also looking to ditch their loud, stinky machines for quieter, greener rides.
The young company behind the TS2, Taiga Motors, said it has built six machines as prototypes for testing and demoing, and is planning to get 20 production candidates out to beta-testing partners next winter. It opened pre-ordering up earlier this month with the aim of delivering most of the orders in time for winter of 2019–2020. The company has already collected a few hundred preorders, according to Bruneau, with hopes to get to 1,000 by the end of the summer. The retail price is $15,000—about the cost of a high-end gasoline snowmobile.
This competitive pricing was intentional, as a way to win customers who aren’t necessarily environmentally minded, co-founder Sam Bruneau told me on the phone. “We really believe in converting as many as possible from gasoline to electric.”The good news for Taiga is that there are already a lot of people attuned to environmentalism—and electric vehicles, by extension—in the snowmobiling community. “A lot of people are turned off by the polluting nature of it,” Bruneau said.
Snowmobiles are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution in some of the world's most beautiful, pristine natural reserves. That fact has led Yellowstone National Park, several other national parks, and a number of European countries to tightly regulate their usage over the years. In fact, the US National Park Service previously banned snowmobiles entirely in the early 2000s from Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks because of environmental and wildlife concerns—until snowmobile companies promptly sued the NPS and won a conditional reversal.
Bruneau and Taiga co-founders Gabriel Bernatchez and Paul Achard—all of whom are in their mid-20s—were blissfully unaware of the heated debate surrounding snowmobiling, and the business opportunity therein, while studying engineering at McGill University in Montreal. The three young men were on a team that won student engineering competitions for building electric race cars and later, an electric snowmobile.They hadn’t been planning to go into the snowmobile business after graduating, but then the calls started coming in: Ski resorts wanted electric snowmobiles like the one they’d built to replace their traditional two- and four-stroke gasoline machines.
“We did more research and saw, woah, there really is a big demand for an electric snowmobile… The fleet market is pretty big. The recreational market is even bigger,” said Bruneau. That was in late 2015; almost three years and $2 million later, the company is currently touring its prototype at some of the most iconic ski hills in North America, including Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe, Revelstoke and Whistler in British Columbia, and up in the hills and backcountry of Colorado.It’s an impressive machine. It looks a lot like a regular snowmobile—two skis, a track, similar behavior—but it has no transmission, which is an asset, said Bruneau. Conventional snowmobiles’ continuously variable transmissions have a lot of downsides, from delayed engagement to jammed tracks.
“The electric motor changes a lot of things,” said Bruneau. “You can get really fast acceleration. You have really precise throttle control. It can do regenerative braking—you can recuperate a bunch of the energy that you’re using. If they want a faster torque response, or to set a certain top speed or maximum power, they can tune all that as well. That’s very new for a snowmobile user.”It’s a connected vehicle too, equipped with sensors that can determine and automatically adjust for hill incline, weather conditions, and other environmental factors.Bruneau said these features work in all kinds of conditions—even the most steep and uneven terrain—meaning the rider only has one input to manually control: the accelerator.So far people seem to like the TS2. Staff at the Mont-Tremblant ski hill near Montreal tested it out last week. They playfully teased Taiga staff about the machine, questioning whether it could perform as well—or better—than the conventional two-stroke, Bruneau recounted. “They came back with big smiles on their faces and said, ‘We could get used to this.’”Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.