Long relegated to trolling duty and dinghy driving, electric outboards are now in demand with more horsepower to deliver greater speed on bigger boats. These outboards have many attractive attributes for manufacturers and boaters alike. They are 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 electric outboards also have their limitations. Speed isn’t so much the issue, but cost is. Range, particularly at higher speeds, is a major challenge, too. Here’s how seven leading manufacturers see the future of these motors shaping up.
German manufacturer Torqeedo, founded in 2005, has sold well more than 100,000 electric inboard and outboard systems. The company is to electric outboards what Vaseline is to petroleum jelly.
In addition to Torqeedo’s line of low-horsepower Travel outboards, which are found on dinghies and daysailers around the world, the company produces Ultralight motors for kayaks and canoes, Cruise motors in the 6- to 25-hp range, and 40- and 80-hp outboards for larger boats.
The demand for outboards is in the higher-horsepower range, but that is also where battery limitations are the most pronounced. In 2013, Torqeedo brought twin 80-hp (50-kW) electric outboards to the Miami International Boat Show. At the time, the motors were revolutionary, and they continue to be the company’s most powerful offering.
Philip 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,” says Tess Smallridge, Torqeedo’s manager for marketing and communications. 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 that when Torqeedo introduced the 80-hp motor, the company started with a 12-kWh battery. Since then, battery capacity has been updated three times. Torqeedo now has a 40-kWh battery with improved range that 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. They include use on waters with stringent environmental regulations; on boats with efficient hulls, such as pontoons; 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.”
The holy grail for electric propulsion companies remains going fast over long distances. “Technically, in five 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 developing 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, a relative newcomer in the marine electric propulsion segment, 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 more than 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 than they realized, they switched to building those instead. Evoy already sells electric inboard systems such as the 400-hp setup in the Evoy1, and it’s about to deliver its first electric outboards. According to Stavøstrand, the Gale Force 120-hp electric outboards will launch this year. A 300-hp electric outboard is slated to launch in 2023, and a 400-hp model by 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, commercial users.”
Stavøstrand says the electric market is big 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.”
Evoy’s 60-knot demo showed that there is a market for higher power, he says. “If you connect this outboard 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.”
Pure Watercraft 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 Watercraft launched a working prototype of a pontoon boat powered by two of its 50-hp electric outboards.
“Here’s the big-picture argument,” says Andy Rebele, founder and CEO of Pure Watercraft. “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 water skiers. But to him, electric boating is not about horsepower. It’s about performance and application. As he puts it, “What do you want the boat to do?”
Like a lot of industry leaders, Rebele says lithium-ion cells are on a 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 thinks most people will resist paying 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.”
Rebele believes 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, adding that until those error rates go down, nothing economically viable will come to market.
In the meantime, Pure Watercraft is focusing on the pontoon boat. “Our boat will go 23 mph with 10 people on board, 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, it has focused on building a more powerful electric outboard. The company is based in Montreal, and the first of its 180-hp electric outboards will soon hit the market, according to Bruce Nurse, who handles investor relations for Vision Marine. That would make the E-Motion 180E the world’s most powerful electric production outboard.
When the company announced the 180E last year, it 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 3½ 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-kW, high-density power pack for the 180E. Nurse says that as battery technology improves, it will continue to extend the range of the 180E. With current battery technology, 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 this year’s Miami International Boat Show. Mounted on a Starcraft 22 triple-hull pontoon boat, the motor pushed the boat to at least 30 knots in a chop with four people aboard. At the end of a one-hour ride that included a number of 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 expect the 180E’s range to continue to grow.
Rhode Island-based Flux Marine is a recent entry in the electric outboard segment. Chief financial officer and co-founder Daylin Martin 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-hp demo motors. At the 2021 Newport International Boat Show, the company took home two new-product awards, including best green product. Flux is building its motors from the ground up with no legacy products, but the batteries will come from third parties. “We’re experimenting with a few different batteries,” Martin says. “We’re testing a number of them, but we’ll just be integrating them.”
Martin says battery technology can only improve so much. He sees it making larger systems more practical, but exactly how is anyone’s guess. “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,” he says. “When you see how those boats operate, and what is demanded of them — 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, Martin says, Flux Marine’s focus is to get the 15-, 40- and 70-hp motors to market by 2023.
“A range between 100 and 300 horsepower will be practical as the battery tech advances,” he adds. “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 right now. Maybe a decade-plus from now, that could change.”
At the most recent International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference, Yamaha Marine entered the U.S. electric propulsion market with its Harmo 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-kW motor. It has a rim-drive electric motor and encased impeller with a thrust equivalent to a conventional 9.9-hp, gas-powered engine.
Yamaha Marine Group president Ben Speciale says 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 U.S. markets within 18 months.
When asked at the 2022 Miami International Boat Show whether Yamaha would be making large electric outboards in the next five to 10 years, Speciale said, “Making the motor is easy.” He then explained that powering large electric motors is much more challenging, and that the technology to make the motors practical doesn’t exist yet.
Asked when electric outboards above 150-hp would have the range they need at high speed, the 57-year-old didn’t mince words: “Not in my lifetime.”
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 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. It included an integrated battery system and a forward-facing color screen to prominently display battery levels.
Jim Hergert, Mercury Marine senior category manager for 30 hp and below outboards, said the motors would use “removable, quick-charging lithium-ion batteries, be easy to use, have minimal maintenance, no exhaust or vibration, reduced noise, and great torque.”
Mercury is starting at the bottom of the horsepower range, but Hergert said 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 far off into the future.
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.