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Electric engine makers plug in to new byways

Electric cars are barely on the road, but entrepreneurs and startup companies are already looking at lakes, mines and airport tarmacs as the next frontier for vehicles propelled by hybrid and battery power.

Much of the necessary reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved by transforming so-called "off-road engines" such as those in fire trucks and small harbour vessels into low-pollution engines, Jim Perkins, superintendent of fleet services for Metro Vancouver, told the Electric Mobility Conference in Toronto this week.

"That part of the fleet has more of an impact than on-road does," Mr. Perkins said. Only about half the fleet he oversees consists of on-road vehicles.

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Canadian companies have already landed some key customers in these areas, as giants with large fleets seek to reduce their fuel costs or meet stringent new environmental requirements, while others are tackling some markets themselves.

The design and development of components for electric motors represents a big opportunity for Canadian manufacturing and a huge export market, said Fred Gingl, chief executive officer of BionX International Corp., which unveiled an electric pedal boat Tuesday at a yacht club in Toronto.

BionX, which began life by producing electric motors for bicycles, is owned by Mr. Gingl, in partnership with Frank Stronach, his former boss at Magna International Inc., who is the controlling shareholder of BionX.

"We always wanted to find a strategy that could use automotive technology in non-automotive products," Mr. Gingl said of what he and Mr. Stronach are trying to accomplish with BionX.

The company will begin manufacturing the pedal boats in Austria next month – Magna supplies the seats and some other components – and plans to deliver the first of its initial production run of 1,000 of its SeaScape12 pedal boats next year, which will be priced at about $6,000. Production will be shifted to Canada next year.

"In Europe, even more so than here, you have a lot of lakes nowadays that no longer permit a combustion engine," Mr. Gingl said. "Most of the small lakes from May 1 to September, you can go in with a kayak, pedal boat, sailboat or canoe, but absolutely no noise and no [emissions]."

Montreal-based LTS Marine has developed an electric motor to propel power boats used for water skiing and will supply engines to Correct Craft Inc. of Orlando, Fla., which makes Nautique boats and plans to have a battery-powered ski boat for sale in 2012.

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The prototypes LTS has built will travel at 40 kilometres an hour, the standard speed for water skiing competitions, said Frederick Prigge, head of projects for the National Centre for Advanced Transportation of St-Jérôme, Que., which helped the company design and build the engines.

Montreal-based LTS will deliver its first battery system to Correct Craft in the next few weeks, LTS vice-president Bruno Tellier said Tuesday. The batteries will be made at an LTS facility in Montreal, where the company is also working with a local company that is making modern versions of some of the classic mahogany boats that plied Canadian waters decades ago.

The key challenge, Mr. Tellier said, is developing a dealership network to sell electric boats and educate buyers.

Mr. Prigge noted that sales of electric boats also depend in part on the cost of the batteries being reduced by about one-third.

At current costs, he said, such boats are competitive with those carrying internal combustion engines if they're bought by heavy users such as ski schools.

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that Magna International holds a stake in BionX International. This online version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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