When Scout Boats owner Steve Potts debuted his first boat with digital switching, he knew it would be a matter of time until smart technology was ubiquitous on all boats, just like it already was on airplanes, in cars and in homes. “Everything that people were being exposed to their whole lives has been centered around this technology,” Potts says. “Consumer expectations were already there.”
Boaters chafed, he says, at the ideas that redundancy and liability would be lost to technology, especially if power went out on board. Despite that skepticism, Potts set Scout on a path to improve upon and implement the smart boating concept on every model over 35 feet.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard KISS — keep it simple, stupid — but you can’t tell consumers that because we’d all still have rotary phones if that was the case,” he says. “Cellular phones, yes, they have more chances of having failures, far more than rotary phones, but who wants to go back to rotary phones?”
The answer, of course, is nobody, which is why more companies are forming partnerships that they hope will let them own the most popular customer interface of the future. Merging engine-data readouts with digital switching systems and helm-control features is all part of a technological race to give boaters what they want, as easily as they can get it, as fast as it’s possible to invent it.
Scout’s 350 LXF was the first to have intelligent CZone technology and Garmin’s Glass Helm. At the time, Garmin was about the only company offering an integrated package like that, says Dave Dunn, Garmin’s marketing and sales vice president. “Now, more players in the market are making it more competitive,” he says. “The winner is the customer and the boatbuilder. There’s a lot of pain behind it, but competition makes us all better.”
A new batch of competitors emerged recently in the outboard technology race when Tiara Sport partnered with Volvo Penta and Seven Marine to create an integrated experience, using twin Seven Marine 527 outboards with Volvo Penta’s Electronic Vessel Control to power the Tiara Sport 38 LS. “The boat is the integration device for all these components going into it, but more and more content is coming from propulsion suppliers,” says Seven Marine vice president Brian Davis. “You also have some turf wars going on. Everyone is going after owning the integrated boat. Digital switching is a big deal — it’s a big part of that real estate.”
Navico, for instance, is providing digital switching with Raymarine. Garmin, which still works with companies including SeaStar Solutions and CZone, acquired EmpirBus, another digital switching company, because “we believe heavily in the future of it,” Dunn says. And last year, Brunswick Corp. bought Power Products, a group of companies that includes CZone, for $910 million.
“Power Products adds a broad portfolio of marine aftermarket and OEM parts and accessories, including sophisticated electronics solutions, to the entire P&A portfolio,” says Chris Drees, president of Mercury Marine. “With the acquisition of Power Products, things are more focused for the OEM where we’re combining these assets to provide better services for our customers.”
The race to integrate has prompted many collaborations among companies that can bring systems together — with more to come.
“We’re looking at products for 2022 now,” Dunn says. “We have to look that far ahead and look at technologies that are coming down the pike and figure out how we can integrate with those.”
The OEM market has changed dramatically in the past five years, Dunn says. Before, builders didn’t want to install electronics. Margins for the work are low, and the jobs are technical. “If they have Garmin and a customer wants Simrad, they could lose a sale,” he says. “That’s changing, and what’s driving that change is the way customers shop.”
Today’s buyers want to pick out a boat and be on the water the same weekend. Somebody purchasing a $50,000 boat doesn’t want to wait two weeks for a $10,000 electronics package to be installed. Dealers are responding, asking for factory installs of the helm products.
Thus, whichever companies win the current technology race will, at least in part, be those that can service the systems best. The more sophisticated the systems are when a boat is delivered, the more support is needed.
Scout Boats has concierge service for boats 35 feet and up and sends its people to do a one-day on-water orientation because it can take dealers years to learn the ins and outs of new features, Potts says.
“If we sell a boat to Turkey or Egypt, they’ve got to fly there — we knew that’s what the expectations were,” Potts says. “The things you don’t think about is ransom insurance. We had to increase our ransom insurance because we were sending our team so many places.”
The more intuitive on-board setups that company collaborations allow create a level of simplicity that helps bring people into boating, but the options do come at a price. Davis says he believes that price notwithstanding, customers will continue to demand the integration.
“If you have a boat sitting with the options on it and a boat without the options, in the end the consumer chooses to buy the one with the options,” Davis says. “Cars cost a fortune compared to what they used to cost. What I think is going on, and if you look at automotive, people are choosing to get things with more features, functionality and integration, and are just willing to own less other things.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.