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This article was published 21/11/2021 (184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CHURCHILL — One of the world’s roughest, toughest electric vehicles was unveiled this weekend in Churchill.
A ride in any Tundra Buggy is a memorable experience. The vehicle itself is remarkable, with the inside resembling a school bus — but much roomier. The buggy’s body is then mounted on wheels intended for the largest industrial vehicles in the world, raising the platform a full two metres off the ground.
But on top of that, the air, as the vehicle rumbles to life, is always filled with anticipation and hope; built on the expectation riders will soon come face-to-face with one of the world’s most iconic apex predators.
Usually, the ride is a loud one, and the polar bear guide is forced to strain their voice to speak over the rumble of the diesel engine — stalling until the stars of the show appear out the window.
But today, for the first time, the ride is nearly silent.
John Gunter introduces himself to riders, speaking at a conversational decibel. His voice competes only with a barely-noticed hum that comes along with buggy 12’s new all-electric engine.
Gunter, president and CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, is beaming as his fleet’s first electric Tundra Buggy climbs through the unforgiving, slushy tundra landscape. It’s working.
"I am super excited," Gunter said, "That navigating silently in a Tundra Buggy under Churchill's northern lights and amongst Manitoba’s wild polar bears is a remarkable tourism experience unique in the world."
Last January, the provincial government announced $149,000 towards the largest tourism operator in Churchill, Frontiers North, to help with the electrification of one of their Tundra Buggy vehicles, used to carry tourists into polar bear territory.
The total cost of the project is not being disclosed but it also benefited from financial or in-kind contributions from Red River College, the Vehicle Technology Centre, and NFI Group.
The four enormous batteries that run the buggy are recycled, having previously been used in New Flyer busses. The EV Tundra Buggy represents a great deal of experimentation and team work, pulled from the greatest expertise in this field that Manitoba has to offer.
Excitement and nerves dance across Tye Noble’s face, the lead mechanic for Frontiers North, as he grips the steering wheel and pulls his baby out of its parking stall for the very first time.
"It was pretty amazing that it actually worked how we planned it. We really took a lot of risks and ideas that we had from running these machines for years, and put them into one machine," Noble said.
"I’m not surprised, but I was very happy that it is performing exactly how we thought it would."
Noble said they’re unsure of exactly what the vehicle's range will be per charge, since it’s never been used, but they estimate three days of tours could be completed before it will need to be plugged in.
The vehicle was retrofitted, which meant it was shipped down by rail to Winnipeg where the majority of the work was done, before making the trip north again, only arriving in Churchill the day before its grand debut.
For Gunter, the investment was worth it for a number of reasons. Of course, the experience for tourists will be improved. But more importantly, for Churchill visitors that are coming to see the polar bear icons whose demise is nearly guaranteed by climate change, he feels it’s important to do his part to lead by example and lower the emissions associated with his operation where he can.
"We often talk about our purpose as a company and about our responsibility to share in the stewardship of the environments and the communities in which we operate. We've been measuring our (greenhouse gas) emissions for years and estimate — during a normal autumn polar bear tour season — this EV Tundra Buggy will reduce our company's GHG emissions by 8.33 tonnes of carbon dioxide," Gunter said.
The company is aiming to convert its entire fleet of a dozen buggies to electric this decade.
The showcasing of EV buggy 12 on the tundra has electric vehicle enthusiasts buzzing. Robert Elms, president of the Manitoba Electric Vehicle Association, expects people who’ve doubted the viability of EV passenger vehicles will have their notions challenged by seeing a vehicle of this size operating in the frigid temperatures that are a hallmark of Churchill winters.
"It’s a moment like this that will make anybody and everybody who lives in the north look and see: if it’s working there, they’ve got to work here," Elms said.
EV enthusiasts and tourists are not alone in their excitement in seeing the EV Tundra Buggy unveiled. Frontiers North also regularly partners with researchers from around the world, allowing them to use Tundra Buggies for their projects, a quiet approach is likely to offer new advantages.
"I'm super excited about the electric vehicle," said Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. "I was dreaming up research projects on my way in to work today. What I could do off of a silent platform."
— Special to the Winnipeg Free Press