Snowmobile makers have traditionally prioritized power and performance over emissions given they cater to consumers who want to rip around at high speeds through back country areas that are literally off the electric grid.
But BRP Inc., a Bombardier Inc. offshoot and one of the world’s leading recreational vehicle makers known for its Ski-Doos and Sea-Doos, has been preparing for electrification in the powersports industry, revealing a lineup of all-electric concept vehicles at a dealer event last week.
Its prototypes, all of which have been road tested, also included new trikes and bikes designed for urban mobility. That’s a potential new market for the Valcourt, Que., company, which could potentially compete with or supply vehicles — perhaps even ones that work in the snow — to bike or scooter sharing companies such as Bird or Lime.
BRP, much like automakers, can’t deny the trend towards electrification and evolving consumer demand for more sustainable products, Denys Lapointe, BRP’s senior-vice president of design, innovation and creative services said in an interview.
“Obviously we’re in an era of change. There’s definitely this new generation coming along, Gen Y, Gen Z, obviously they’re more concerned on the global footprint,” Lapointe said.
BRP’s first attempt to sell electric vehicles came in 1996 with a “neighbourhood electric vehicle” that looked like a cross between a smart fortwo and a golf cart. The market wasn’t quite ready at the time, Lapointe said, so BRP shied away from the technology for a few years.
Now it’s been working on hybrid technology since about 2010 or 2011. Much like the rest of the auto industry, the problem is building vehicles with comparable power and range at a similar price.
“(Our consumers) probably would convert very easily if we were able to provide a product at the same cost,” Lapointe said, citing Tesla Inc. as an example of electric cars at premium prices.
“That’s the challenge that everybody’s faced with: Trying to accomplish what internal combustion engines can do at the same cost, it’s very challenging.”
“Obviously it is part of our DNA and we know what to do to move on snow. It would be natural for us to explore in this arena,” Lapointe said.
BRP won’t reveal timelines for releasing the other vehicles, but noted the prototypes have been tested in cities including Barcelona, San Francisco, Paris and Montreal.
“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Lapointe said.
The announcement sparked analysts’ interest even though it could still be years before BRP sells all-electric vehicles.
“The fact that the company is already road testing concepts suggests it is well advanced in its efforts,” National Bank analyst Cameron Doerksen noted to clients last week.
He also noted the potential new market of commuter vehicles such as scooters and bikes. Tech giants including Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. are big investors in a space where the top players, Bird and Lime, are both valued at well over $1 billion.
“If BRP does ultimately enter this market, it would be a new segment that likely has strong growth potential and is less cyclical than traditional powersports,” Doerksen wrote.
BRP stock is up nearly 47 per cent year-to-date and was trading at $51.86 Monday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. At the end of August, a number of investment banks raised their price target for the company. TD Securities raised its price target for BRP to $54 per share from $47 previously, CIBC World Capital Markets to $56 (from $52 earlier), and National Bank raised it to $51, up from $48.
BRP isn’t the only Quebec company that sees opportunity in electric powersports vehicles.
Montreal-based Taiga Motors started developing electric snowmobiles in 2015 after its founders, three engineering students, won an engineering contest with their concept vehicle.
After they went on breakfast television to discuss the win, they were inundated with phone calls from ski hills and tour operators who wanted their product, even though they hadn’t graduated yet, co-founder and chief executive Sam Bruneau said in an interview. The idea of quiet, clean vehicles that didn’t need $3,000 in fuel per season appealed to commercial operators, Bruneau said.
“There was this big opportunity because there was no one making electric snowmobiles,” he said. So they started Taiga.
“It was really to do what Tesla managed to achieve in the auto space, kick-starting the whole electrification wave on-road. We wanted to do that off-road,” he said.
Taiga, which is funded by private investments and government grants, has tested its snowmobiles in Europe and the U.S. for the past two winters with partners including Aspen Skiing Company and SkiStar AB.
Bruneau wasn’t surprised to see BRP’s announcement, and welcomed the big player’s interest in going electric.
Taiga plans to beat BRP to the market. It plans to go into production for 2020, with the goal of selling 700 to 1,000 vehicles for its first season, Bruneau said. At US$15,000 per vehicle, he said the price point is about a $3,000 premium to comparable snowmobiles. Taiga also plans to build a personal watercraft vehicle using the same internal components.