Editor's Note: Our Outboard Expert is always asking questions, and this week, between regular columns, Charles Pluddeman made a natural enough leap from automotive news to marine musing. Following is the mini-interview on the topic with an expert from Yamaha. —John Burnham
All the recent news about unintended acceleration on automobiles with electronic, or “drive-by-wire,” throttles has me wondering whether a boat equipped with digital controls could go hay-wire and take its crew for a full-throttle ride.
For an opinion, I went to David Meeler, Yamaha Product Marketing Information Manager and an expert on the Yamaha Command Link Plus digital throttle-and-shift control, who answered three questions on the subject:
Would it be possible for the digital control systems on a marine engine to fail in a way that the operator would lose control of the boat?
The throttle input on a boat is much different than that on a car, in that the operator of the boat both advances and retards the throttle lever. On a car, you rely on a spring to retard the throttle when you lift your foot off the pedal. On the Yamaha system, there’s a lever-position sensor in the control, and the throttle-position sensor on the engine. If the two sensors send a conflicting signal to the ECU (the main computer), it’s programmed to take the engine to idle speed. The system is also equipped with redundant sensors and with redundant pathways for the signals. So if a screw under the deck chafes through the cable, for example, and cuts that wire from the lever sensor, the signal can find another pathway to the computer.
How do you test these digital control systems to make sure that the software remains stable and behaves as intended?
There are many levels of testing, both by Yamaha and by the vendors that supply the electronic components, which must meet rigorous standards in lab tests. We also conduct many hours of real-world, on-water testing at our engineering facility in Alabama, and we monitor outboards that are used in the field by professional anglers, guides, and government agencies.
What do you think will be next big leap in marine digital control technology? Are you working on an automatic docking system?
I can’t speak for the industry or to our specific plans, but our Command Link Plus system is designed to have lots of room for expansion. I think the most potential lies in integrating more boat-control systems, like automatic trim that responds not just to the throttle, but even to the boat’s real-time running angle and sea conditions. The computer would fine-tune the trim to deliver the best economy, or the best ride, for the conditions. But you’ll still have to dock the boat yourself.