Consumers are increasingly becoming accustomed to convenience: Their cars tell them how to get to the next destination, their smartphones report what the weather will be when they get there, and their home systems turn lights on and off while they’re gone.
But do they want those conveniences on their boats? The answer to that question is mixed, according to boatbuilders. For those who resist, the reason is often that technology is more expensive at sea, or that there’s a basic fear of change.
“I feel very strongly that there still seems to be some apprehension, especially from seasoned boaters,” says Scout Boats founder and CEO Steve Potts. “Anything that is somewhat sophisticated or feature-rich, there’s an apprehension about being able to navigate systems in terms of reliability.”
Marquis Yachts president and CEO Rob Parmentier, who partners with Connecticut-based Faria Beede Instruments to deliver connectivity to buyers of the Marquis models created with Lexus, says there’s also a generational divide when it comes to early adoption. “Usually the older [or] more conservative the customer is, the less of that stuff he or she wants,” Parmentier says. “Of course, we have some tech-savvy people; they want everything. You try to offer both, or have the ability to dumb down the connectivity so you don’t flip people out with too much technology.”
But still, change is coming. And as with digital switching and other technological trends, those on the forefront of convenience technology say that once consumers get a taste, they will expect it — in part because it will make boating easier and safer.
Cellular vs. Satellite
The capability exists to connect boats while at sea, but with satellite technology rather than less-expensive cellular, says David Dunn, senior manager for marine marketing and sales at Garmin. “The challenge with cellular is, do you use 3G, 4G or 5G?” Dunn says. “5G is becoming the new standard. You could be quick to rush something out with 4G, but who’s to say that system you just paid $1,000 for will work next year? Those are the challenges with the future of these kinds of products.”
Based on the success of Nautic-On and other companies that have remote-monitoring products, there is a market for the kinds of convenience features that boaters have in their cars and homes, Dunn says. However, the limitations of Wi-Fi at sea mean the user experience on the water will not be the same.
“We want to make sure we jump over all those hurdles before we bring a product to market because we want the customer to have the best experience possible,” Dunn says. “The marine market is not as large as the automotive market, so economies of scale come into play. It can be done, but what price does the customer pay to get it? The guys buying the 52-foot Scout, they don’t care; but the guy with a 24-foot Scout is probably not going to pay $100 month.”
Faria Beede combines cellular capabilities with satellite for when boats are offshore or in dead zones, says Peter Harpin, telematics business development manager for the company. In its simplest form, hardware that connects to both cellular and satellite costs about $400 but can run thousands of dollars for more sophisticated systems — plus the monthly service-provider fees. “While not free, the services are coming down, but that’s data-centric,” Harpin says. “If a person wants to send a whole bunch of information, it’s more.”
The hybrid cellular-satellite systems are necessary because cellular signals only work about 20 miles offshore, depending on where the antennas are pointed, Harpin says. “We run on the Iridium network, which is the most cellularlike in that it has higher reporting frequency than others, and it’s the only one that covers the entire planet,” he says.
As more boaters demand services, the price is likely to come down even more, Harpin says. An analogy is the airline industry. Wi-Fi via satellite is nearly ubiquitous on flights, and the cost is spread out among passengers. At $300 or $400 for an economy-class plane ticket, the cost is now built-in.
“Once you start to move big quantities of data, that cost does come down, but there’s still a significant gap until there’s a more significant number of users,” Harpin says.
Privacy and Safety
Beyond cost and fast-advancing technology that can make a recently purchased product obsolete, another hang-up for customers is privacy, says Lou Sandoval, national director for business development at Nautic-On, which is part of Brunswick Corp. Customers prefer systems with opt-out choices. “Even when they share information with a marine service provider, we have a toggle switch so they don’t have to share their location,” Sandoval says.
Data is collected for various reasons, Harpin says. Some is about engines and systems, in an effort to make the customer experience safer and hassle-free. Manufacturers can see a fault reoccurring with a particular system and can get information to the customer before a problem arises. Insurance companies sometimes give discounts when boats have those systems, Harpin says. “Some companies would not insure some of the go-fast boats unless they had a system on board to tell where the boat was if it was stolen,” he says.
The marine industry has been slower than others to adopt data-collection technology because some boaters still see it as an imposition as much as a convenience, but OEMs tend to favor the systems. “Once there’s the ability to have someone remotely that can help or assist in certain situations, then it really changes things dramatically,” Potts says. “Someone could do updates, or a dealership could diagnose something remotely in case of an emergency.”
Though some engine data can be tracked and monitored, engine manufacturers still have proprietary systems on board, Potts says. This lack of across-the-industry systems also slows the adoption of new technology.
“We struggled for a while to have generators operable from a single screen because the manufacturers didn’t want to give up their codes,” he says. “Some of that, I think, is changing, but I don’t know that engine manufacturers are ever going to get away from being in complete control over what goes on in their systems.”
In the meantime, other connections can be made to keep boaters safer and create an easier experience. “I think it’s a calculated decision that you want to go in and advance the experience people have in a vessel,” Potts says. “It takes conviction to take a brand and company into the modern age of electronics and digital. It’s a front-end investment, and also it’s changing the culture that you have as boatbuilders.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.