Electrification of recreational boating will require designing EV boats from the hull up with a different approach than automotive EVs
We are on the precipice of a paradigm shift in the recreational marine industry.
Much like how high-performance EV automobiles entered the mainstream about ten years ago, high performance EV boats are about to take off.
This is obvious to anyone in the industry. Electrification pavilions are expanding at trade shows, boat buyers are requesting info on EV boats, pre-ordering, and joining waitlists, and there seems to be a new EV boat builder, electric motor manufacturer, or EV systems company forming every day.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem and it’s a big one.
This won’t come as a shock to many readers but might be a shock to some boat builders. Electric drivetrains are different than internal combustion engine (ICE) powered drivetrains. In fact, they’re significantly different.
This may seem like an obvious thing to say but there’s good reason for saying it.
If one were to survey the state of marine electrification today, they would find many EV boats are indistinguishable from their ICE powered counterparts. Center-of-gravity (CoG), materials, construction methods, hull shape, amenities, etc. are all reused. Even though EV drivetrains are significantly different in operational requirements (and opportunities), many builders are treating them as drop-in replacements for ICE powertrains.
Even venture funded startups that are supposed to be on the cutting edge of innovation are falling prey to the mindset of doing things the old-fashioned way. While many may have incremental innovations, apart from companies like Candela, most electric boat offerings can be distilled down to regular boats with batteries and electric motors.
“We’re following the automotive model.”
Many EV boat builders fancy themselves as the Tesla of marine. They talk about building for the high end to support expansion into the middle market. Unfortunately for electrification of the boating industry, such claims aren’t exactly accurate.
Let’s explore similarities between the marine and automotive EV spaces.
Tesla launched the first-generation Roadster with a base price of $80,000. This technically qualified the Roadster as a luxury vehicle in the U.S. with ~$75,000 being the defined price point for luxury vehicles. Furthermore, the use case for the Roadster places it squarely in the luxury market given its lack of general utility. Luxury automobiles represent approximately 5% of U.S. retail automotive sales.
In the marine industry, 90% of new boats retail for less than $50,000. Approximately 5% retail for between $50,000 and $100,000. Less than 5% of new boats retail for more than $100,000. This aligns with automotive pricing. A $300,000+ boat is the marine equivalent of a Lamborghini. It’s behind luxury and into super-car territory. A boat company that was truly following the Tesla model (from a pricing perspective) would launch with an electric boat retailing at ~$100,000 and quickly drive down to the sub-$50,000 retail market.
With regards to design and manufacturing practices, the boating industry should steer as far away as possible from the Tesla model.
Tesla developed the original Roadster around the Lotus Elise chassis. They did this because there are massive barriers to entry to entering the automotive sector with highway capable and approved vehicles. Tesla’s founding team wisely understood that developing an entire road-worthy vehicle from scratch wasn’t viable from a development or manufacturing perspective. They leveraged an existing vehicle platform and manufacturing line to accelerate their speed to market, mitigate risks, and manage unit costs. This allowed them to compete in the luxury car market and not be relegated to the realm of super-cars. The Tesla team focused on solving the missing piece of the EV puzzle, high density batteries and high-power motors.
Tesla built EV technology around an “old-fashioned” car platform because they had no other choice. As they’ve grown and developed into a full-fledged automobile manufacturer, they have started to shift to an optimized electric paradigm. The models that they have designed in-house have focused on weight reduction, efficiency improvements, cost reductions related to the EV powertrain, and deployment of multiple low-cost electric motors in a single vehicle.
“A new boat design can move from a napkin sketch in a bar to full validated production in as little as nine months.”
Boat builders have far fewer barriers to entry than automotive manufacturers. A new boat design can move from a napkin sketch in a bar to full validated production in as little as nine months. Doing the same with a car would take about five years. Additionally, boat manufacturing lines are far easier to set up. Boat builders have no where near the volume of automotive manufacturers. This means that CapEx needed for a new boat line is much more affordable. Furthermore, the high labor content involved in boat building (nearly every boat build is semi-bespoke) means that changes can happen quickly and there is no need to rely on legacy designs.
EV Boat builders should be leveraging their low CapEx exposure, high labor content build process, and existing EV drivetrain technologies to leapfrog the design process and launch with in-house designs focused on electrification.
What does a holistic approach to electric boating look like?
I obviously can’t share all the details of everything we have in the works at Epoch through this venue but can share some guiding principles. The first has to do with the relationship between thrust mechanism and fuel. In the realm of ICE powertrains, fuel (gasoline/diesel/etc.) is inexpensive, relatively lightweight, and plentiful. The powertrain (engine and support systems) is expensive, heavy, prone to maintenance events, and complicated. In aggregate this means that for ICE vehicles there is a benefit to limiting the number of powertrain units while maximizing fuel.
EVs flip this dynamic. In an EV the fuel (battery system) is expensive, heavy, and complicated (BMS controlled). The powertrain (electric motor) is inexpensive, lightweight, and simple. This means that EVs can benefit from utilizing a singular monolithic battery system while maximizing the number of electric motors. This principle can be seen in real time in the automotive space. Tesla started with a single motor automobile and now offers premium models with dual and triple motors. The proliferation of motors doesn’t significantly impact the BOM cost of the vehicle but enables the vehicle to take advantage of the unique properties of electric motors.
The holy grail of the automotive sector is to deploy a configurable chassis with four motors. The optimum number of electric motors for EV boats is yet to be determined.
Another significant opportunity to design a boat for electrification has to do with hull design and deck layout. Traditional boats need to support big engines, whether inboard or outboard. This requires consideration related to hull shape and deck layout. Furthermore, fuel tanks like to be tall rather than wide to ensure full senders work (when they actually decide to work) and to ensure that fuel drains properly. Again, this impacts hull design, center-of-gravity requirements, and deck layout options. Electric motors being relatively small and lightweight allow for drastically different hull designs to be utilized. Battery configurations enable this as well. Electrons don’t care what shape a battery is or where it can be placed in the boat.
“EV boats can provide a great customer experience with half the range capability of ICE powered boats.”
Range capability is also a worthwhile point of discussion. ICE boats tend to have several days’ worth of range capacity in their fuel tanks. This is because fueling is a chore. Customers would reject the need to trailer their boat to a gas station or stop by a fuel dock every time they leave the launch. Electrification allows us to flip the script on this. Most boats are already plugged in when not in use to recharge cranking and hotel batteries. This means that without changing customer behavior (aside from negating the need to visit a gas pump), EV boats can provide a great customer experience with half the range capability of ICE powered boats. This enabled significant cost and weight savings related to batteries but does require customer education to understand why having less range won’t negatively impact their boating experience.
We’re in the early days of marine electrification. Builders, old and new alike, need to design with intent for electrification. Customers won’t accept sub-par products and slapping an EV drivetrain on a boat designed for ICE power will result in just that. Boats designed with intent to leverage the benefits of electrification while minimizing the shortcomings will ensure that customers have great experiences and boating remains a positive activity in the eyes of the public.
Thanks for taking the time to read and be sure to follow us @EpochBoats for future updates!
Tom Ward is co-founder and CEO of Epoch Boats, leading the design & development of Epoch’s electric battery boats. Tom is a seasoned engineer in the marine industry with a proven track record in engineering, product development, manufacturing & commercializing marine mechanical products. Tom also serves on the ABYC technical board helping to define marine technical standards.