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Planes, automobiles and boats

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Are boats becoming more like cars? Or planes, perhaps?

Just three days ago the AC72 cat Aotearoa, sailed by Emirates Team New Zealand, hit nearly 50 mph in 14- to 16-knot winds on flat water. It looked more like a big wing riding on hydrofoils than a boat, at least what we used to think of as a boat. The speeds were the fastest ever in America’s Cup racing, but we’ll see faster before it’s over.

One of the strengths of our industry is innovation — at both the small-shop entrepreneurial level and in the larger companies. And some of the ideas and technologies making their way into boats are being borrowed, adopted and modified from other industries, including automotive and aviation.

The citron-green Revolver 42 is an “automotive approach to a performance boat,” according to designer Michael Peters. The helm and cockpit are completely enclosed, but the aft section of the hardtop opens by electric power, as does the aft windshield, which rises to meet the hardtop. The 70-plus mph Revolver rides a twin-stepped hull with shock-absorbing helm chairs. The feeling is like being in a sports car.

Sometimes it’s cars that actually try to imitate boats, as this video shows.

Executive editor Chris Landry was in Sweden recently for the worldwide introduction of new technology from Volvo Penta. He got to drive a test boat equipped with the latest high-speed joystick steering system.

“You could go from the steering wheel to the joystick at high speeds if you wished,” Chris told me. “Or from the joystick back to the wheel, all done with the push of a button on the joystick throttle base. It took a while to get used to. It’s very responsive. It’s all about nudging the joystick here and there.”

He added: “It’s kind of the next thing.”

Indeed. Integrated with the autopilot, the joystick is incorporated into the armrest of the helm seat, a nice setup for comfortable cruising.

Chris also got to experience Volvo Penta’s “Glass Cockpit,” an integrated control and monitoring system using push buttons and touch screens, eliminating the need for gauges and keypads. The idea is to simplify the complex, making the boating experience more enjoyable and safer. The system was developed in cooperation with Garmin.

“The Volvo Penta Glass Cockpit gives the boat operator a similar experience to driving a modern automobile,” Marcia Kull, Volvo Penta’s vice president of marine sales for North America, said in a statement. “The driver environment in cars is similar, regardless of the car brand. A driver pushes a button with confidence that it all will work. In the boating world, it has not been quite as easy — until now.”

The aeronautical community is also looking at glass cockpits for similar reasons. The New York Times in a recent story quotes one of the world’s largest makers of aircraft cockpits as saying that touch-screen technology will replace knobs and buttons and keypads by the end of the decade.


“We have reached such a high level of complexity today,” Denis Bonnet, head of cockpit innovation at the French electronics group Thales, told the newspaper. “We want to create an interaction that is more intuitive and that reduces the workload, helping to keep the pilot focused on flying.”

It’s all about better managing the torrent of data that floods into the pilots’ computers, in part by reducing the number of traditional controls with touch-screen technology.

“It’s a bit like using your iPhone to find a pizza place,” Bonnet told the Times. “You are very happy, once you have located it on your map, to be able to have the telephone number displayed, as well — the right information, close to where you expect it to be and not somewhere deep inside the user interface. The idea is to hide the complexity.”

Two hurdles are inadvertent touch and sunlight readability, according to the article, which also quoted a professor of industrial and systems engineering warning against embracing touch screens with “irrational exuberance.”

One of the challenges that come with the flood of information now available to automobile drivers, pilots and boaters is dealing with the potential increase in the number of distractions.

Car dashboards have become so content-rich that the engineers on the new Acura MDX luxury sport utility vehicle are working to deliver all of the features that drivers are clamoring for but in a way that won’t compromise safety, according to another recent story in The New York Times with the headline, “Designing Dashboards With Fewer Distractions.”

Automakers are trying to strike the right balance between safety and giving consumers what they want.

“Now the car has become a mobile computer packed with new entertainment options, Internet access and a dizzying array of apps that help drivers avoid traffic jams, find parking spots and locate the nearest coffee shop,” the writer opines.

Boat as a mobile computer? It’s here already, of course. Smaller, increasingly powerful computers and sensors have made more information available to the boater in real time than ever before — navigation, weather, communications, systems monitoring, entertainment and more.

On boats, as in cars, a high level of situational awareness is what keeps you off the bricks and out of trouble. Distractions should be avoided when you’re running a boat in a busy waterway. You don’t want to have your face buried in a screen when your two eyes can do a better job. But technology that can display critical information clearly, quickly and without distraction is what we’re all working toward.

With cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently issued voluntary guidelines to automakers to reduce both visual and mental distractions caused by new technology, according to the Times. An automobile trade association spokesman said the industry is working on making the technology “less risky” to use, according to the report.

“What does the customer really want,” the newspaper quotes Honda engineer Jim Keller asking. “They want to do more in their cars with less effort and complexity.”

And fewer distractions. That’s a good goal.



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