Maritime’s Electric Future Has Arrived
Organizations that can execute and scale customer-friendly digital innovation are the ones that will gain a competitive edge in the maritime market.
When GM-backed Pure Watercraft launched its electric pontoon boat in January 2022, the auto giant’s EV efforts officially leapt from freeways to freshwater. It’s part of a broader trend we’ve been watching closely. As “mobility” innovation moves to the maritime vertical, technology is powering new possibilities across recreational watercraft, cruise lines, and commercial shipping channels. New players are emerging to challenge established leaders, and—as GM’s investment shows—established leaders are wading into new waters in pursuit of new revenue streams. As competition intensifies, the organizations that can execute and scale customer-friendly digital innovation are the ones that will gain a competitive edge in the maritime market.
Personal Watercraft: Smart Homes on the Water
The drivers behind the shift to electrification are environmental, economic, and experiential. As manufacturers pursue a more planet-friendly future, electric boat owners reap the rewards of vessels that are pollution-free, less expensive to maintain, and loaded with new features and flexibility that make ownership a joy.
As usual, small firms are innovating quickly–and they’re also borrowing designs from other industries. The Sweden-based startup, Candela1, has created a hydrofoil equipped with the first underwater electric pod motor for high-speed boats. Using design principles from the aviation industry, the software and electronics are engineered to deliver a smooth experience even in rough seas. Height, roll, and pitch are judged by ultrasonic sensors that estimate the position, velocity, and acceleration of the boat on all axis and adjust the foils 100 times per second. For the consumer, ownership means virtually no maintenance, no worries about local noise or wake ordinances, and no pollution of the environment. This gives them the freedom to enjoy their craft when they want, where they want. Like the Skateboard platform design in modern electric vehicles, Candela’s platform allows for multiple product sizes; the firm has already launched a water taxi, and larger ferries are on its roadmap.
Another electric entry, Xshore2, layers on smart customer experiences. In addition to onboard 24-inch touchscreen captain controls, the EElex 8000 offers a captain’s watch with a “man overboard” feature that automatically stops the boat if you fall. The watch can also send texts, share your position, and trigger SOS notifications—even offshore.
Big players are also on board and investing heavily in electrification. In addition to traditional auto firms like GM investing in the start-up space, there are well-established maritime players with their own customer base and brand strengths who are driving innovation. Brunswick is emerging as one of the key players. Just like Stellantis in the auto space and THOR in recreational vehicles, Brunswick is driving innovation across its brand portfolio, which includes well-known leaders like Sea-Ray and Boston Whaler. The name of Brunswick’s future boatbuilding strategy says it all: “ACES” stands for Autonomy, Connectivity, Electrification, and Shared access.3 Mercury Marine, a $2.6 billion division of Brunswick, has already launched a series of innovations, including a mobile app that lets boaters see points of interest for their body of water, receive alerts if engine issues arise, and connect easily with their local dealer. In addition to launching five fully electric propulsion systems this year, Brunswick has borrowed the “autonomous parking” idea from the car industry to deliver an “assisted docking” system that uses machine vision technology to autonomously respond to marina conditions and ensure a smooth docking process.4
Beyond innovating its products, Brunswick also has a strong history of connecting the people who use them. Similar to Jeep’s Badge of Honor program, Brunswick’s Freedom Boat Club5 has been creating a community of water and boat lovers. The club lets people rent a boat for a day from a wide variety of vessels across 300 locations in North America and Europe. It’s a great way to reach new customers, introduce them to new products, and turn people into boating enthusiasts.
In the race to deliver excellent customer experiences in electric watercraft, the team with the most focused use of product development dollars will have a key advantage. The ability to use rapid, remote prototyping will help get innovations to market faster.
Cruise Ships: Personal Experiences at Scale
As the cruise industry rallies back from the pandemic, it might be falling short of its opportunity to transform the customer experience. Travelers spent the past two years embracing new technologies and personalized experiences that made their lives at home easier. They’re used to ordering groceries online, curbside check-ins, app-based banking, smart speaker home automation, and more – all geared toward customer convenience. Passengers don’t leave those expectations on the dock when they board a cruise ship.
Some progress is being made. New 2022 vessels from Disney and Caribbean Cruise Lines have incorporated virtual reality and immersive elements into their live entertainment onboard. Vectorform created a CGI-enhanced green screen for passengers to capture alternative photo and video backgrounds. MSC Cruises teamed with Samsung to launch ZOE, a voice-enabled smart speaker in every stateroom that can speak seven languages, answer hundreds of questions about the cruise, and help book onboard services. But there’s plenty of room for improvement in the customer experience. Innovative firms are challenging the status quo; incorporating more digital features into passenger cabins, interactive 3-D maps to help them navigate the ship, and using virtual reality to provide immersive previews of shore excursions. We can deliver shipboard features that are on par with—or more advanced than—the technology they’re used to on land to surprise and delight cruise guests.
Beyond improving the customer experience, technology can also transform the captain experience and help ship operators keep vessels running smoothly and safely. Once again, other industries offer proven examples of applied technology. In the energy space, Mitsubishi Power’s TOMONI voice solution connects power plant operators to the plant’s most important data, updated in real-time, and serves it up on clear, actionable dashboards via voice or touch commands. Applied in the cruise industry, solutions like TOMONI could let ship captains ask how specific engines are functioning, see how valves are performing, and be notified of any problem areas or abnormal conditions. They could even order ship technicians to proactively schedule maintenance or order new parts before they’re needed—a key advantage in today’s world of supply chain disruption.
Commercial Vessels: Creating the Fleets of the Future
With all the images we’ve seen of gridlocked supply ships and containers piled up in ports, it might seem strange to look for electrification advances in commercial harbors. There are challenges in this space.
Many experts agree that decarbonizing harbors will probably require new regulatory or market-based incentives, similar to those we’ve seen for electric vehicles. For example, a new electric tugboat is being developed with financial support from an alphabet soup of agencies, including the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District, the California Air Resources Board, the Port of San Diego, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Maritime Administration.6
Innovation is happening in spite of these complications. For example, although charging tugs with sufficient energy to do their work is currently a challenge, harbor masters can’t argue with the better torque and maneuverability that hybrid or electric motors offer in tight spaces. It’s also hard to argue with the financial advantages of electrification. The higher upfront costs for electric propulsion are more than offset by the savings in operating expenses, which yield lower overall costs of ownership for working vessels that are on the water for 100 days or more per year.7 Some ambitious companies are even exploring planet-friendly containerships. California-based marine technology startup Boundary Layer Technologies has unveiled its engineering design for a zero-emissions hydro-foiling containership to serve as an affordable replacement for air freight along intra-Asia trade lanes. The vessel will be powered by green hydrogen and fuel cells that will be kept in a liquid state inside its two hulls.8
When it comes to applying smart technology to commercial vessels, Steerprop Care is using machine learning to track the health of a ship’s main propulsion system and alert crews to any red flags or future maintenance requirements. Crews can also request remote assistance, similar to the OnStar support model in vehicles.9
The market share of electric boats may be small right now, but so was the battery-powered vehicle market when Tesla first launched. As we’re seeing in the frantic rush and slew of investments toward EV vehicles, change is inevitable. Just like in the mobility space, roadblocks will be removed in maritime as carbon reduction goals become more dire and customers look for innovation on the water, not just on the roads.
We’re excited about what lies ahead, and we’re ready to help you advance your own maritime innovation goals. If you’re ready for the next step on your electrification strategy and customer experience journey, start by considering the following:
- Do you have an innovation management process? Vectorform has different types of engagement offerings to help Unlock, Unblock and Unleash the potential of your product to market.
- Focus on bringing your products to life and leveraging the voice of your product (VOP) for better use of data and rapid, real-time collaboration.
- Improve your digital ecosystem. Keep pushing for your product and service offering to be accessible to other partners and global markets.
Interested in learning more? Let’s start a conversation.