On the road, hybrid cars are all the rage. Premium prices and long waits haven’t diminished the market’s appetite for fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicles like the Toyota Prius, which has replaced the SUV on bestseller lists and as an icon of attitude.
For a while now, boatbuilders grappling with weakening demand, declining profits, factory closures and layoffs have been racing to hop on the hybrid bandwagon, but for many there is little time and budget to reinvent the wheel. Brunswick Corp., for example, which owns many top brands and was hard hit by the economic downturn, says it wants to cut $300 million in fixed manufacturing overhead and operating expenses.
To keep innovating and developing new models in this situation, some manufacturers are eying OEM technology from Europe to roll out boats with hybrid propulsion.
A new approach
In 2006, the first successful hybrid systems in large-scale production surfaced with Lagoon 420 sailing catamarans, which have electric auxiliary motors and separate diesel generators to charge the batteries. However, getting a hull on plane requires more horsepower than moving a car down a road, and stashing such a diesel-electric propulsion system into a small pleasure boat is anything but simple. If the hybrid idea was to work in other contexts, a different approach was needed.
One such approach comes from Austria, where gas is $8 a gallon and the government has imposed tough restrictions on the operation of powerboats with combustion engines on small finger lakes, though leaving loopholes for boats with electric propulsion. Engine manufacturer Steyr Motors joined forces with other Austrian companies, such as Frauscher Boats (42 employees, annual production about 150 units, revenues of about $13 million), along with colleges in Linz and Vienna, to develop an in-line diesel-electric hybrid that consists of a monoblock diesel engine and an electric motor that is attached to the flywheel and is decoupled with a clutch in electric propulsion mode. This concept makes it possible to go back and forth between normal diesel and silent electric mode with the flip of a switch, albeit not (yet) on the fly.
Fuel savings come from the diesel’s efficiency and from using the boat in electric mode to get in and out of the slip or to cruise at a leisurely 5 knots. The 48-volt electric motor also acts as a starter and a booster for the diesel during acceleration. It is powered by two AGM battery banks that are charged by the diesel via a hybrid control unit. On the helm, the digital display of the Steyr Electronic Control informs the skipper about vital engine data and relays throttle commands to the engine, using CAN protocol. Recharging the batteries to full capacity takes approximately an hour when running the diesel or 12 hours when plugged in at the dock. Battery power, Frauscher says, is good for about an hour of electric propulsion, depending on throttle discipline.
Conquering the U.S.
Although not a household name with U.S. consumers, Steyr has been in business since 1864, manufacturing rifles, bicycles, cars, tanks and, starting in 1922, monoblock diesels. The company, then known as Steyr-Werke AG and after a 1934 merger as Steyr-Daimler-Puch, began to manufacture marine diesels for now-defunct OMC in 1988. In 1990, after the OMC breakup, the diesel engine division became Steyr Motorentechnik GmbH, which developed the M1, the first electronically controlled marine diesel. In 2001 the company became independent and was renamed Steyr Motors GmbH, which established a U.S. subsidiary, Steyr Motors North America, in Panama City, Fla., in 2006.
But as a development partner, Frauscher had the inside track for the inline hybrid and rolled out the first production runabouts with this technology in January at the Düsseldorf boat show in Germany. What was new to the world wasn’t quite so new for Frauscher.
“Because of our special legal situation here [in Austria], alternative propulsion has been an integral part of our business since the 1950s, when we started building electric boats,” says Stefan Frauscher, the company’s sales manager. “This hybrid solution lets customers choose between going fast and going quiet.”
With 80 percent of production destined for export, the U.S. market is next on his list. Last spring, the company, together with its West Coast distributor, California Chris-Craft, launched the Frauscher 757 St. Tropez hybrid runabout in San Francisco. Even though the U.S. economy has softened and the exchange rate of the dollar to the euro remains unfavorable, Frauscher is undeterred. “Economies and currency rates fluctuate,” he says, “but we still have to innovate so we can offer products that are in step with time.”
Timing the market
Being in step with time is important to Reuben Trane, president of Island Pilot LLC, a Miami-based company whose power-cruising yachts are built in China.
In an effort to reduce the impact of high fuel prices on its customers, the company is introducing the DSe Hybrid 12M, a 40-foot cruising power catamaran that uses solar-electric and diesel-electric hybrid propulsion, at the Oct. 30-Nov. 3 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
“When we heard about the Steyr technology, we decided to incorporate it in the DSe Hybrid to supplement the boat’s 6-kW solar-electric drive,” says Trane.
Sea trials with twin 75-hp Steyr in-line hybrids fitted with Saildrives produced more top-end speed than a diesel-electric system that used separate electric motors and generators. “We felt that 13 knots was more in line with our customers’ expectations than 9 knots,” Trane says.
Upgrading the other system would have required more generator power and bigger motors, which would have diminished returns, says Trane, who also likes the Steyr’s ability to burn biodiesel and the 48-volt system of the electric motor, which is covered by ABYC safety standards (E-11, AC & DC Electrical Systems on Boats).
While Island Pilot is charging ahead, others are not so fast out of the gate. Sea Ray, one of Brunswick’s subsidiaries, says it is evaluating the Steyr hybrid as part of the company’s ongoing research for alternative propulsion, but won’t announce specific plans before the conclusion of a 1,000-hour test program. “As we are developing technology, we are investigating possibilities,” says Rob Noyes, Sea Ray director of marketing. “We have a fully operational 240 Sundancer hybrid that will have to undergo rigorous testing, [but] that is only one of several initiatives.”
Meanwhile Steyr Motors North America uses its network of distributors and authorized dealers to market the hybrid to OEM customers and private owners. “Pollution is becoming an issue in Florida harbors,” says Steyr’s product manager Rich Alley. “If you start [the hybrid] in electric mode to get out of the dock, you avoid running the diesel when it’s cold and inefficient.”
He thinks the electric motor could also be used for “silent fishing,” making separate trolling motors obsolete, and points out the hybrid’s charging capacity, which handles the two battery banks for the electric motor and other house loads, so there’s “no need for an extra genset.”
Steyr also wants to make inroads with boaters who are looking to repower their vessels with compact, light and efficient power plants. Without the transmission, the Steyr 6-cylinder 250-hp diesel weighs 709 pounds. The hybrid drive, which fits only Steyr engines, adds 165 pounds and around 4-1/4 inches of length to the bell housing. Including batteries and transmission, Alley estimates the weight of the 250-hp hybrid package at 1,000 pounds.
The Steyr in-line hybrid might be light in pounds and heavy on features, but all of this comes at a price. Retail pricing for Steyr diesels ranges from $18,400 for a 4-cylinder 50-hp model to $44,000 for the 250-hp 6-cylinder. Add at least $16,700 for the hybrid package (including controllers, switches and connectors, but not installation), and saving money by saving fuel becomes a bit more challenging.
And that’s a concern for Gregory Van Sickle of Channel Marine Services in Scappoose, Ore., Steyr’s West Coast distributor. “I get several calls a day, but the cost is still prohibitive for many,” he says, especially when they learn they have to buy a Steyr diesel to get the Steyr hybrid.
At this time he considers the concept fit for certain niches, like high-end recreational markets and early adopters of new technology. “In that sense it’s like the Prius,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t all compute out on paper, it sure makes you feel good about yourself.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.