Yesterday I caught up with Yamaha Marine Group President Ben Speciale, and had a chance to talk to him about the technical agreement announced last week by Yamaha and Volvo Penta that will see the two marine power manufactures teaming up to develop control systems for boats powered by outboard motors. Last week I offered some speculation on where this agreement might lead Yamaha. In today's short interview, I got to ask Speciale directly about Yamaha’s plans to work with Volvo.
Speciale just assumed the role of president at Yamaha Marine Group in May, 2010, but he has been with the company since 1987, holding positions in marketing, promotions and strategic planning. In addition to Yamaha outboards, Speciale oversees the Yamaha boat companies, Skeeter and G3, and Precision Propeller Industries. Yamaha has about 2,000 marine dealers and is an engine supplier to 120 boat brands in the U.S.
I started the interview by asking Speciale if I was correct in assuming the goal of the collaboration with Volvo Penta was the development of a joystick control for Yamaha outboards.
“The goal is to develop an integrated control system,” said Speciale. “Today, an outboard-powered boat has a number of independent systems, including steering, throttle, shifting, motor tilt, and instrumentation. Our first step is to integrate all of that into a single system, and then see if we can do something more with it. Docking control is a logical step, because that’s an issue of concern to many boat owners. I’d like eventually to get a group together in a room and just dream about things we could do with this technology, but the first step is to develop that system integration. Of course, those ideas need to be affordable and do-able. I’ll tell you, I’d really like to be able to drive my house boat from a lounge chair up on the bow deck. Maybe we’ll get there.”
It seems unusual for a Japanese company to look outside for help in developing technology. Was this a big step for Yamaha?
“There are two ways to look at that,” said Speciale. “In the past, we’ve built automobile engines for Ford, and later for Volvo. Both projects offered Yamaha an opportunity to develop technology. Those were very low-volume builds for Ford, but they were high-volume for Yamaha, and we learned a lot. Lessons from the Volvo V8 engine were applied to our 350-horsepower Yamaha V8 outboard. We work with many companies in developing components and systems for our engines.
“I think this relationship with Volvo is really exciting. Marine is really a small industry, and Yamaha and Volvo have a similar position in the industry. Because we serve different parts of that industry, it’s logical to work together on a common control platform. It’s a good utilization of resources for both companies. In the end, this will be a stand-alone system specific to our engine products.”
Is there a time frame for bringing a new control system to market?
“I think we need to get through the first stage of basic development, and then we’ll know how long this might take,” said Speciale. “I think that will take about a year, so we should know a lot more in 12 months.”