Long relegated to trolling duty and dinghy driving, electric outboards are now showing up with more horsepower to deliver greater speed on bigger boats, but how far will they be able to take us?
Electric outboards have many attractive attributes. They are much quieter than their internal combustion cousins, have fewer moving parts, require little or no maintenance, are lighter, have much greater torque and don’t smell. But they also have their limitations. Speed isn’t so much the issue, but cost is. Range—particularly at higher speeds—is a major challenge.
To find out where electric outboards are headed, seven manufacturers shared what the future of those electric motors may look like.
Torqeedo was founded in 2005, and with well over 100,000 electrc inboard and outboard systems sold, the German company is to electric outboards what Vaseline is to petroleum jelly.
Besides Torqeedo’s ubiquitous line of low-horsepower Travel outboards, which are found on dinghies and daysailers around the world, the company makes Ultralight outboard motors for kayaks and canoes, Cruise motors in the 6- to 25-hp range, and 40- and 80-hp outboards for larger boats. Torqeedo knows that the biggest market for outboards is in the highest range, but that’s also where battery limitations are most pronounced.
In 2013, the company brought twin 80-hp (50kW) electric outboards to the Miami International Boat Show. At the time these motors were revolutionary, and they continue to be the company’s most powerful offering. Phillip Goethe, Torqeedo’s director of product management, says the company knew from the beginning that the big challenge with the 80-hp motor was range. “The hard part was always to get enough capacity and low weight inside a boat to have sufficient range,” he says.
But making larger electric motors isn’t the problem. “We can build you a 200-hp tomorrow,” Tess Smallridge, Torqeedo’s manager for marketing and communications, says. It’s battery cost and weight that keep electric outboards from replacing large gas outboards, especially at higher speeds and over greater distances. Battery technology is improving though. Goethe says when Torqeedo introduced the 80-hp motor it started with a 12-kWh battery, but since then the company has upgraded the battery capacity three times. Torqeedo now has a 40-kWh battery, which has dramatically improved range and allows ever larger boats to convert to electric.
Torqeedo knows it will take time to give the go-fast, go-far boaters the speed and range they want. But in the meantime, it sees plenty of applications where electric makes more sense than gas, including on waters with stringent environmental regulations; on boats with efficient hulls, like pontoon boats; on high-displacement, low-speed vessels; and in locations where access to gas is disappearing. “Marinas are not offering fuel on some of these smaller waters anymore,” Smallridge says. “If boaters are unable to fuel on their lake, they’re going to have to tow their boat to a gas station or bring fuel to their boats. With electric, they can run an extension cord for shore power or put solar panels on the roof. All you do is go out, and plug in when you come back.”
But some boaters still want to go fast over long distances, and for electric propulsion companies, that remains the Holy Grail. “Technically, in 5 years it should be possible to go fast for an hour at speed,” Goethe says, but because storing enough electricity aboard a boat will be a challenge for the foreseeable future, Torqeedo is working to develop systems that can use hydrogen or methanol as range extenders.
“We’d like to get our electrons from the sun or the wind, but we’re open to everything,” Smallridge says. “That is how we’re building Deep Blue. It is a system architecture with multiple battery, charging and motor options that make it easier for people to use their boats.”
Evoy is a relative newcomer in the marine electric propulsion industry, but it got off to a quick start in 2019 when its 28-foot Evoy1 inboard-powered boat broke the unofficial world speed record for production electric boats with runs of over 55 knots.
Evoy was founded in Norway in 2018. CEO Leif Stavøstrand and his father initially started building boats, but when they realized that the market for electric inboard and outboard systems was much larger, they switched to building those instead. Evoy already sells electric inboard systems like the 400-hp one in the Evoy1, but it’s about to deliver its first electric outboards. According to Stavøstrand, the Gale Force 120-hp electric outboards will launch this spring. A 300-hp electric outboard is slated to launch in 2023 and a 400-hp electric outboard in 2024.
Stavøstrand acknowledges that range is the big challenge. “It is the same issue everyone has,” he says. “It’s storage. Right now, we are using the same battery as the Tesla model 3. We’re not expecting anything revolutionary coming. The battery industry has matured, and we will see incremental changes like you see in cellphones, computers and cars.”
Meanwhile, he sees ample opportunity in the market. “We have to remember that not everybody lives in the Florida Keys and has to go for 50 miles at 50 knots,” he says. “There are lakes, rivers and commercial users.”
Stavøstrand says the electric market is more than large enough to develop the large engines. “For us, the commercial market is the largest segment,” he says, “but we believe this will move into leisure as the battery costs come down.”
Evo’s 60-knot inboard demo has opened a lot of eyes and interest around the world. “There is a market for the higher power,” he says. “If you connect this with a really efficient hull, you can do 30 nautical miles and we’ve seen over 50 nautical miles. We have 400-hp inboards running that we are already delivering to market. Putting that much power in an outboard is manageable, but it has to be tested. So that’s why we say 2024 is the goal for the commercial release of that.”
He is bullish on electric boating. “We’ve known for more than a century that electric motors are superior. We see that with cars now. Now that the batteries are getting better it is something that can cover a lot of people’s use.”
Andy Rebele, the founder and CEO of Pure Watercraft, believes the future is electric and he isn’t afraid to geek out on numbers to make his point. His company made headlines last year when it got a $125 million cash infusion from General Motors in a deal that also gives Pure Watercraft access to GM’s EV technology. Within 44 days of the announcement, Pure launched a working prototype of a pontoon boat powered by two of its 50-hp electric outboards.
“Here’s the big picture argument,” Rebele says about electric versus gas. “All major car companies are stopping internal combustion manufacturing, and 95 percent of boats are fueled at gas stations. So, when car companies stop selling gas cars, what happens to the gas stations and where do all those boats go to get gas?”
Rebele is not new to electric propulsion. Ten years ago, he was involved in putting a 280-hp electric motor on a boat that went 48 mph and could tow multiple waterskiers. But to him, electric boating is not about horsepower, but about performance and application. As he puts it, “What do you want the boat to do?”
Like a lot of industry leaders, Rebele believes that lithium-ion cells are on the 7-percent-improvement curve, which means that a battery of a certain size and price will gain 7 percent power annually. “That’s the percent that Tesla uses in their calculations,” Rebele says. He also doesn’t think the great majority of people want to pay a lot of money to put thousands of pounds of expensive batteries in their boats. “We’ll do huge horsepower,” he says, “but the motor is much easier to make than a power pack that makes sense.”
He thinks a battery that can efficiently and economically propel boats with high-horsepower electric motors over long distances at full speed is still far off in the future. Even if someone could create a battery with the necessary power density and calendar life, it would still take years to ship millions of cells. “The error rates on the first ones are going to be high,” he says, and until those error rates go down, he thinks nothing economically viable will come to market.
In the meantime, Pure Watercraft is putting major effort into the pontoon boat. “Our boat will go 23 mph with 10 people onboard, using less power than gas,” he says. “That speed is fine for a pontoon boat. We have an incredibly efficient motor. We put two of them on a pontoon boat, and a GM battery, and they can go all day.”
VISION MARINE TECHNOLOGIES
Vision Marine Technologies started out in 1995 as a manufacturer of low-powered electric launches and runabouts, but since 2014 the company has focused on building a more powerful electric outboard.
The Canadian company is based in Montreal, and according to Bruce Nurse, who handles investor relations, the first batch of its 180-hp electric outboards will soon hit the market. If so, the Vision Marine Technologies E-Motion 180E would become the world’s most powerful electric production outboard.
When it announced the 180E last year, Vision Marine said the 650-volt engine would be powered by a 60-kWh lithium battery that could provide an estimated range of 70 nautical miles, or 3.5 hours, at a cruising speed of 17 knots. Since then, Vision Marine has contracted with Octillion Power Systems to develop a marinized, high-voltage 35-kWh high-density powerpack for the 180E. Nurse says that as battery technology improves it will continue to extend the range of the 180E, especially when you install two batteries. He says with current battery technology, and at 95 percent charge, the boat can go 35 to 40 hours at 4.6 knots.
Vision Marine had one of its motors available for testing at the 2022 Miami International Boat Show on a Starcraft 22 triple-hulled pontoon boat. A sea trial in Miami’s harbor showed the boat could do at least 30 knots in a chop with four passengers aboard.
At the end of a one-hour ride that included numerous high-speed runs, the demo battery went from 96 percent capacity to 69 percent. With Octillion batteries, future battery technology improvements and the cost of kilowatts dropping, Nurse and Vision Marine are confident that the 180E’s range will continue to grow.
Like Evoy, Rhode Island-based Flux Marine is a recent entry in the electric marine outboard industry. CFO and co-founder Daylin Frantin says Flux intends to carve out a niche in the 15- to 70-hp range. “That’s where we really feel the biggest gap is today,” he says, “and we feel we can put together a solution that’s practical in terms of battery life and performance.”
Flux has already produced a number of 15-, 40- and 70-horsepower demo motors, and at the 2021 Newport International Boat Show the young company took home two new product awards, including best green product.
Flux is building its motors from the ground up, but the batteries will come from third parties. “We’re experimenting with a few different batteries,” Frantin says. “We’re testing a number of them, but we’ll just be integrating them.”
Frantin doesn’t think current battery technology is ever going to triple or be five times what it is now. “It can only get so good,” he says. “I think battery technology will make larger systems more practical, but I don’t think anybody knows where that’s going. We do expect it to launch into the hundreds of horsepower in the next decade or so, but I don’t think it’s going to be 600 horsepower. Not when you see how boats with that power operate, and what is demanded of them while going offshore. The trips are longer, the boats are heavy, and they’re moving through water, which is a thousand times denser than air.”
For now, Frantin says Flux Marine’s focus is to get the 15-, 40- and 70-hp motors to market, which they plan to do by 2023. But he definitely thinks 150- and 200-hp models, or even electric outboards over 200 hp, are possible. “A range between 100 and 300 horsepower will be practical as the battery tech advances,” he says.
“If batteries double in power, that would be impressive, and that is possible, but I don’t think it’s going to get five times better with the chemistries we have available right now.” Frantin says. “But that could all change in another decade or so.”
At the 2021 International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference (IBEX) Yamaha Marine entered the U.S. electric propulsion market with its Harmo electric outboard system, which had previously been introduced in Europe.
The Harmo is not your ordinary outboard. It looks more like an inboard-outboard that couples a 48-volt power supply with a high-yield, low-drag 3.7-kWh motor. It features a rim-drive electric motor and specially encased impeller with a thrust that is equivalent to a conventional 9.9-horsepower gas-powered motor.
Yamaha Marine Group President Ben Speciale said the Harmo “is the perfect system for horsepower for internal-combustion restricted waterways.” At the time of the IBEX announcement in September 2021, Yamaha said the Harmo would be available in the U.S. markets within 18 months.
When asked at the 2022 Miami International Boat Show whether Yamaha will soon be making large electric outboards, Speciale was frank.
“Making the motor is easy,” he said, as he went on to explain that powering the large electric motors is much more challenging and that the technology to make them practical doesn’t exist yet. Asked when electric outboards above 150-hp will have the range they need at high speed, he didn’t mince words. “Not in my lifetime,” the 57-year-old Speciale said.
Mercury currently has no electric propulsion products on the market, but during its 2021 investor day, the company announced that it was “committed to launching five electric propulsion products by the end of 2023 with the first product to be launched before the end of 2022.”
At the 2022 Miami International Boat Show, Mercury showed off the Mercury Avator Electric Outboard Concept. The reveal was short on details about horsepower, range and speed, but the display model was impressive-looking and had some thoughtful features that included a simple, integrated battery system and a forward-facing color screen designed to prominently display battery levels.
Jim Hergert, Mercury Marine senior category manager for outboards 30-hp and below, says the motors will use “removable, quick-charging lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, be easy to use, have minimal maintenance, no exhaust or vibration, reduced noise, and great torque.”
Mercury may be starting at the bottom of the horsepower range, but Hergert says that the company is developing the Avator series “to prove that we’re serious about electric propulsion.”
Time will tell if future electric ponies may include a bunch of Clydesdales, but unless industry experts have it wrong, a 600-hp electric outboard that can go the distance is still relatively far off into the future.
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.