New technology is transforming boat cockpits
You’ve undoubtedly seen commercials for home automation systems promising an effortless modern lifestyle. Did those wily kids leave the lights on? Pull out your cell phone from afar and it’s lights out back home. Did you forget about the rack of lamb torching away in the oven? Avoiding an inferno is just a screen tap away.
In the auto world, the latest infotainment systems pair smartphones and tablets with the car’s Wi-Fi-connected system to monitor the health of the vehicle, automatically send maintenance notifications, stream live radio stations, book hotel rooms and locate nearby restaurants among many other futuristic functions.
The boating market is next up on the revolution fast track. While we’re still only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the latest cockpit technology combines the Internet with onboard sensors to provide real-time, location-specific data to captains via gleaming, glassy displays that are becoming the center of today’s connected vessels.
Moving beyond navigation
Screens have been fixtures in high-end boats for years, primarily to display navigation and fish-finder information. Now engine controls, intelligent diagnostics and web-based data are being added to the mix in the latest generation of touch-based systems with wide-ranging implications for boat owners, manufacturers, the aftermarket and dealers.
With ever more aspects of the vessel being integrated into one or more screens that can be manipulated by touch — just like smartphones and tablets — today’s connected cockpit screens can give you the weather forecast, chart a course, monitor fuel consumption, control pumps, provide real-time maintenance data that can be shared with nearby dealerships and even set the mood with one-touch navigational and lighting as the sun sets.
“What we’re trying to do is bring all important boat operating information to the operator at the helm station, and then allow it to be customizable to what’s important for that particular user so they can change what they see in order to customize that experience,” said Marcia Kull, Volvo Penta’s vice president for marine sales. “It’s actually better than car-like, because when you think about it in your car, you’re going different places for different controls. To open your windows you use one thing, to open up your gas tank you use something else, if you want to control your air conditioning you do something else. With the Glass Cockpit System, it’s really all on that big multi-function display.”
Louis Chemi is executive vice president and managing director for the recreational marine division of Navico, parent company of Lowrance, B&G, MX Marine and Simrad. He has helped coordinate a corporate restructuring around the idea of a digitally enabled boating experience where he said, “the possibilities are limitless.”
“There are different kinds of things you can do to add value to the consumer’s boating experience by taking data on and off the vessel,” he said. “When you have [data] off the vessel you can put it into a database, you can crunch it with other data and factors you see going on, and you can bring the boater back a new set of information he wasn’t aware of before.”
Navico’s latest products include B&G’s H5000 and Zeus Touch instrumentation, autopilot and displays for the sailing market, and Simrad’s NSO evo2 Glass Bridge system, which won an Innovation Award in the consumer electronics category at the 2014 Miami International Boat Show.
Mastervolt, which recently teamed up with Garmin and Scout Boats for its fully integrated GPSMAP Glass Helm Series displays, said that recent technology is enabling a vastly different, more cohesive boating experience.
“We’re integrating products that people are used to using in their daily lives, but maybe not so much so in a boat, so things like a key fob that each of us uses every single day to open or close our car,” said Michele Goldsmith, sales manager of key accounts and PR/media manager at Mastervolt. “Why not have a device like that where you press one button and it wakes up the boat, or another button that shuts the boat down for the evening?”
The advancements developed by marine tech leaders haven’t gone unnoticed in the wider boating industry. Volvo’s Glass Cockpit System has received four industry innovation awards, including Miami. It’s the result of a partnership with navigation experts, Garmin, where Volvo Penta developed the software and Garmin designed the touchscreen displays.
The system is available in several different versions, with screens ranging in size from 8 to 19 inches — all glossy, glassy screens that are fully customizable to the operator’s preferences. Power up the boat and all screens illuminate in sync, and those two screens with all their pinching, zooming and swiping, is designed to control nearly every function on the boat.
Volvo Penta’s Kull said the Glass Cockpit’s Auto Guidance is the feature that gets consumers most excited during in-person or simulated demos. Beyond just showing operators a route like traditional navigation, Auto Guidance searches all nearby nautical charts and creates a route guiding the vessel around shallow water, buoys and other potentially hidden obstacles.
While more of a behind-the-scenes player until recently, Navico’s brands have powered navigation displays on Polaris off-road vehicles and Baja-style off-road buggies, as well as its popular Lowrance fish finders. The company has partnered with marine manufacturers to provide displays, including Mercury’s multifunction VesselView that it has supplied for years.
“We have probably sold more engine displays than any other of the folks in the marine electronics space,” Chemi said. “Some of those are under [non-disclosure agreements], but with a lot of the outboards you’re looking at our display on the dash.”
He added that while integration has been the category buzzword for years, the last few have seen the technology come to a level where advanced displays are becoming standard equipment on many mainstream models.
“With the deeper level of integration you can essentially clean up your dash,” Chemi said. “You can take away some of the basic engine gauges that really don’t provide much information. You can have a nice, clean dash that has your charting, fish finding, radar and engine data all in one nice, big display. And, of course, you can display that information in a more intuitive way for the consumer so that it’s easier for them to use and you can use common user interface techniques so that it’s nice and consistent with everything else he does.”
Co-developed between Mastervolt and Garmin, the GPSMAP Glass Helm Series is branded by Garmin, but built using Mastervolt’s CZone technology. GPSMAP Glass Helm comes with multi-touch displays that integrate sonar, autopilot, tank monitoring, power monitoring, apps, engine data and more.
Mastervolt’s Goldsmith equates the evolution to what’s happened in cars where screens have become nearly ubiquitous on vehicles at every price point. She sees this tipping point making it easier for people to operate boats at a glance.
“In the past [touchscreens] have been just associated with navigational electronics, and now what’s happening is that we’re integrating with those companies that own the helm and say why not be able to monitor if you’re running out of battery power from that position, or why not turn on a bait well because you’re going to go fishing or why not have the ability to change your lighting or turn up or turn down your radio from that position?” Goldsmith said. “What it’s doing is adding more convenience, it’s user behavior-friendly so it’s clear, simple graphics that the boater understands and it’s just simplifying the dash, simplifying the helm and making it easier to operate the boat.
Easy as pie?
While larger boats have never been easy to operate — especially for beginners — marine tech providers aren’t just hoping to add features to the next generation of boats. A major goal in the development of next-gen helm tech is to simplify the appearance and operations of the systems for seasoned captains, beginning boaters and anyone else who may need to take control in the event of an emergency.
“There’s this entire push within the industry to broaden the base of who’s boating and to make boating easier,” Goldsmith said. “As we move forward the idea is to broaden the demographic to broaden the appeal to a larger group of people. We’re going to make this as easy, simple and safe as possible, and I think as you see the innovations that come down the pike that all of them are going to move in this direction.”
Volvo Penta sees a similar priority in reducing barriers to boat operation and ownership, a major theme in all products it has introduced since joystick control back in 2005.
“Boats that used to require a captain or a captain’s license or, if nothing else a lot of anxiety on the part of the operator, can now be used very intuitively by a weekend operator,” Kull said.
During a recent round of product and consumer research, Navico undertook an ambitious study that outlined 64 different types of boaters. After zeroing in on what a day in the life would be like for each, the company narrowed the list down to 12 diverse boaters. This allowed the company to address what each boater needs to know, which needs are currently being met, which are currently under-served and what he or she will remember after the trip — good or bad.
“We’ve come up with 12 areas where we believe we can add significant value to the boater’s day by using pieces that we either have already available or will have available shortly,” Chemi said.
Better cartography was one such need identified by the research, and Navico’s Insight Genesis product is one result of its approach. Insight Genesis allows boaters to flip a switch on the display that records the current depth and other information that is uploaded to the company, processed, and then returned to provide better, higher resolution charts for areas that were previously off the map.
“We all love boating, we just don’t do it enough,” he said. “If we want to have more people in boating and we want to help people have a good time, then what we have to do as electronics guys is use our technology to make it easier for the guy to go boating. There are a number of areas we’re working on to help make it simpler for him to go out and do his boating, and a lot of that is based on the exchange of data or the analysis of data, and when I say exchange, it’s really private but it’s basically his equipment telling him, ‘Hey, I recognize something different here.’”
Mastervolt, a global firm in the marine, auto and energy industries, has 30 engineers around the world developing boating innovations. The company is preparing to launch around the IBEX show in the fall. Its current and future products have focused on removing buttons and toggles that can be daunting to beginners.
“This theme of streamlining the dash, simplifying that cockpit area, making it more user friendly where you don’t have to figure out what to turn on, what to turn off, and what time to turn it off or what you turn on or turn off first, that’s key,” said Goldsmith.
While enthusiast editors have panned certain automotive touch-based infotainment systems as slow to respond, prone to crashes and hard to control in uneven road conditions, Goldsmith said Mastervolt’s would likely remain with buttons tucked neatly out of the way.
Her concern about the industry is not whether the technology can provide durable, seamless, easy-to-control systems that have alluded automakers like Ford and Cadillac, but what would be the impacts if the industry didn’t dive into touchscreen interfaces.
“What happens if we don’t embrace this technology?” Goldsmith asked. “The RV market has embraced it, the automotive market has embraced it, the residential market has embraced it, I think if we don’t embrace it, we’re definitely limiting ourselves.”
Infinite possibilities ahead
As Volvo Penta’s Kull looks to the months and years ahead, she sees Wi-Fi-enabled features opening Pandora’s box to allow on- and off-vessel data to be used and manipulated to the boater’s advantage.
Smartphone integration will also make a big splash in the years to come, allowing owners to keep tabs and adjust crucial vessel settings remotely. One potential result of this new integration will be remote diagnostics telling owners what’s going on with their boat, making arrangements to have parts available at a dealership with minimal hassle or delay.
“We’re bringing new technology, we’re bringing this big beautiful screen, but we’re also taking away a lot of gauges and controls that cost money as well, so by the time we net all this stuff out, there is really just a marginal increase in what they’re paying for significant advances in technology,” Kull said. “I think we’re surprising the market at what you can get for really a nominal increase in cost.
Navico’s Chemi echoed the idea that data transmitted to and from the vessel may enable significant changes to the structure of the marine industry, especially in terms of service. He gave the example of a boat’s electrical system detecting changes in the battery charging cycle that suggests a new battery is needed. That data can be automatically sent to nearby dealers who can attempt to capture the business before the boater becomes stranded.
“Basically we can diagnose that, tell him he needs a new battery … [and] send a note to the boat dealer that’s nearby there and tell him, ‘Hey, send this guy a 10-percent off certificate for a new battery if he buys it this weekend,’” Chemi said. “Hopefully we’ve helped the boater out because he’s now got 10-percent off on a battery … [and] the boat dealer’s happy because he just got a sales opportunity that he wasn’t aware existed.”
Mastervolt’s Goldsmith, who also chairs the board of directors for the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s accessories group, anticipates more boat manufacturers will partner with electronics companies to harness the abilities enabled by today’s connected vessels.
“Our stuff is going to be coming onto smartphones very quickly and remote monitoring and control is definitely something we’re looking into,” she said. “Some of it’s going to happen within the next six months for us, so you’ll be able to use that iPad app, which is available on iTunes now, and be able to turn the fridge on so the beer’s cold by the time you get to the boat.”