In a quiet corner of the industry, the outboard motor is evolving. Technological revolutions can be hard to predict. Perhaps at the invention of the wheel, the steam engine, or the microchip some forward thinking observers predicted the changes that would come to society. But what about Crocs footwear? Did anyone guess a few years ago that they would become the new standard in hideously ugly comfort? Still, reading the signs of the times suggests we may be in for an equally profound paradigm shift when it comes to marine propulsion. We’re talking about electric outboards. Not trolling motors, but primary propulsion electric outboards. Consider consumer readiness. After a summer of cleaning crude oil out of most every bay, marsh, and beach along the Gulf Coast, alternative energy sources are more attractive than ever to many boaters. Also consider recent strides in automotive technology. The success of the Toyota Prius and other gas-electric hybrids in recent years has helped pave the way for acceptance of electric technology in the minds of many consumers. Fluctuating gas prices and environmental concerns seem to be working together to curb consumers’ appetite for bigger, faster modes of transportation.
There’s a growing appreciation for cost-effective and eco-friendly technologies. Finally, consider that there’s a quiet little corner of the marine industry where electric propulsion is thought to be the only way to cruise the waves, and that electric-powered boats are anything but new. History tells us of electric boats being developed as early as the 1830’s in Russia, and by the end of the 19th century, electric boating was well established in Europe and in the Americas. The first outboard motor is credited to French inventor Gustave Trouve in 1880. And, yes, it was electric. On this side of the pond, electric boating got its big break with the Electric Launch Company (Elco), founded in December 1892. It provided 55 electric launches to ferry passengers around at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and exposed more than a million passengers to electric boats over the following summer. The subsequent demise of electric boating parallels the rise of the internal combustion engine. By the end of World War II there was little market left for electric pleasure craft. Even the pioneering Elco Company closed its doors by 1949. But all was not lost. By the mid-1970’s, interest in electric boating was growing again, along with a desire for eco-friendly technologies, and electric boating was beginning a quiet comeback. By 1987 Elco was restarted and today, along with dozens of other manufacturers in the U.S., builds electric launches, cruisers, and even yachts. And they’re not alone. Dozens of manufacturers in Europe and Asia are doing the same. The revival of electric boating has been a push both for green power and for quiet power. Electric-only lakes in exclusive communities that demand peace and quiet for residents, gasoline engine restrictions in large municipal water supplies and reservoirs, and electric-only zones in inshore waterways are popping up all over the U.S. In some European countries, gas powered engines have been banned from all or nearly all inland waterways over noise and pollution concerns. In these locales, especially in the U.S., larger watercraft have displacement-style hulls with inboard or small outboard electric motors. Duffy Electric, based in Southern California, offers multiple models between 16 and 24 feet that will cruise for nearly eight hours at up to 6mph and carry a dozen people. Owners of such craft croon over the ease of operation, low maintenance, and quiet, fume-free boating experience. But the real growth in electric boating, at least in the U.S., has come with the proliferation of the humble pontoon boat. Low-cost, high-capacity, and ready to cruise, electric-powered pontoons are the eco-boating solution for the masses. Some are pushed by garden variety trolling motors or Minn Kota’s beefier 2hp E-drive system. But many pontoons are sporting a new breed of electric outboard, one that promises real motoring power and not just fish-hunting stealth. These outboards offer the convenience and range of inboard electric boats but without the expense.
Most significantly, they carry the hope of electric power for more high-performance craft preferred by the fish and ski crowd. Think of cruising offshore hunting king mackeral and never burning a drop of gas. Science fiction? Maybe. But maybe not for long. Where is this new outboard technology being developed? Don’t call Mercury, Yamaha, Honda or Evinrude. Not even Motor Guide or Minn Kota. If any of these marine industry giants are moving toward primary propulsion electric outboards, they’re not saying (and we asked.) No, if you want the scoop on electric outboards you’re better off talking to Morton Ray. Ray, 82, is a retired Army officer and considered by many to be the father of the modern electric outboard. His company, Ray Electric, is based in Cape Coral, Florida (where else would a boat builder retire to?), and he’s been making electric outboards since 1974. He got his start in Baltimore, converting small gasoline outboards to electric for a boat rental operator. But the engineer in Ray found the conversion process too inefficient. His own design is now built from the ground up as an electric power plant. It’s air cooled, so there’s no water pump to worry about. The system charges overnight for a few dollars in electricity so it’s economical to run. And, it’s an outboard, so it will fit on any transom designed for a gasoline engine. Three versions – 48 volt (4hp), 36 volt (2.5hp) and 60 volt (5hp) – are available. A typical investment is about $4,500. In any configuration Ray’s motor will run approximately six hours at “medium” speed or a third of that at full throttle. Back it down to a troll and you can motor all day and then some.
“We’re trying to build the market,” says Ray, who acknowledges that pontoon boat owners, and those on electric-only lakes, are the real market right now. Since these waterways are nearly all privately held, it’s hard to determine just how many exist. Ray claims there are only about five electric-only lakes in Florida, but many more along the East Coast. One of his competitors, John Fiorenza of Mars Electric, agrees. Mars is the exclusive distributor for Parsun Marine electric outboards. “Our sales are to boaters on reservoirs where gas outboards are not allowed. There are a number of them in Georgia, New York, Florida, and Virginia. There’s also a market around Chicago, in Wisconsin, and in California. Fiorenza, who serves as president of Mars Electric estimates about 2,000 electric outboards are sold each year in the U.S., perhaps less than one percent of the market for 10hp gasoline motors. If Ray is an electric outboard pioneer, Mars/Parsun represents market opportunists. Their outboards are built alongside the company’s gasoline engines in China, which helps keep cost down. They are water-cooled with a brushless motor up top and not down in the water as is common in most electric outboards. Comparing their product to Minn Kota’s E-drive, which is very popular among pontoon owners, Fiorenza says the Parsun “offers twice the power at half the cost,” with units ranging from $1,800 to $3,000 for up to 5hp. He also says Parsun recently put two new 10hp models on display at an expo in Shanghai, using the engines in tandem and incorporating lithium-based battery technology to produce a significant step forward in power. Indeed, electric outboards are just beginning to comfortably break the double-digit horsepower mark. One of the chief obstacles is providing the bigger motors – or tandem motors – with enough juice for sustained use. The cost for enough power to plane a small fish, ski, or runabout boat is a heavy payload of batteries. Four-, six- and eight-battery packages are common for electric outboards and add several hundred pounds to a boat’s weight. Duration is also key.
At full throttle a 5hp electric outboard can drain its battery supply in an hour or less, although it will last six times that long with more moderate use. Two European companies are attacking this problem with a vengeance. One is Torqeedo, a German firm established in 2005 that began distributing in the U.S. in 2006. With offices in Crystal Lake, Illinois, their products are distributed both through retail outlets like Cabela’s and West Marine as well as with boat manufacturers, mostly of the pontoon and deck boat variety. Their electric outboards range from tiny (think kayaks and sailboat dinghies) to the more powerful 48V cruise model, which they compare to a 9.9hp gas engine in total thrust, and sells for about $3,700. In addition to sporting some fancy electronics that detail power usage, speed, and predicted range of operation, it can also be paired with the company’s new lithium-manganese batteries. “Our new lithium-manganese is a 25.9 volt battery and 104 amp hours and weighs 45 pounds,” says Steve Trkla, president for North America operations. “If you were to base it on dollars per watt/hour it equates to about three typical 105 amp hour AGM (Absorbed Glass Matt) batteries.” The latter typically weigh 70 pounds each, translating into the same power at nearly one-fifth the heft. And, in addition to the tremendous weight savings, the lithium-manganese technology does a better job of holding a charge in storage and tolerating higher temperatures.
This advance has the company hopeful of big strides in the near future. “One of the things you’ll see from us next year,” says Trkla, “is using our Cruise motors in tandem configurations, which will allow us to plane some light skiffs and fishing boats and [effectively] move large pontoon boats.” Torqeedo’s Austrian neighbor, AquaWatt is pursuing a similar track. Makers of both inboard and outboard electric technologies, their 13kw/18hp outboard is capable of pulling a skier behind a small 13-foot RIB at a speed of about 21 knots. For proof, consumers need only to log onto the company’s website for a look at the video. Such power is possible because of lightweight lithium polymer batteries, but run time is still limited. A 110-lb payload will keep the RIB at full speed for only about 30 minutes. Double the battery capacity (and weight) and run time goes to just over an hour. Where does the future lie? From his vantage point in Cape Coral, Morton Ray says the next significant revolution for electric outboards will come when we can generate electricity onboard. “I think it’s going to take hydrogen fuel,” he says. “Producing your power onboard and not having to store it. That’s the key.” Until then, gains in battery and motor technologies are making electric boating more accessible and more practical. Whether motivated by an eco-minded conscience or by gasoline use restrictions, the modern boater can do more than ever with a few watts of power. Next year, Ray Electric will begin offering potential customers free rides in their new line of boats built specifically for its outboard. Included is a 23-foot center console fishing boat with a highly-efficient displacement hull. It will cruise at 6mph for eight to 12 hours. That’s a lot of time to fish. Better wear your Crocs.