Yamaha Marine Group and Volvo Penta are teaming up to work on a new control system for outboard-powered boats, according to a joint media release issued by the companies on Dec. 6. The release is short on specifics, other than to state that the systems to be developed “include a single remote control … that will combine power and steering into one easy-to-use electronic device.” Read between the lines a little, and I assume what they are talking about (but not talking about) is a joystick control for Yamaha outboards.
Volvo Penta presently offers joystick controls for its IPS inboard powertrain, as well as for its sterndrive line. Both systems rely on total electronic control of both steering and throttle, with the ability to steer each drive unit independently. Mercury Marine also offers joystick control for its pod-drive inboard Zeus powertrain, and with its Axius system for MerCruiser sterndrives. A key feature of both the Volvo and Mercury systems is the ability to have extraordinary, one-hand control of the boat during docking maneuvers through the joystick.
I’ve been expecting Mercury to trickle its joystick technology down to outboard motors. In 2008 I was shown an early prototype of an outboard joystick system in the back shop of MotoTron, the Brunswick subsidiary that developed the very complex software required to drive both Zeus and Axius. MotoTron, which was based in a Mercury test facility in Oshkosh, Wis., was sold to the Woodward Governor Company later in 2008.
The former president of MotoTron, Jeff Ehlers, stayed in Oshkosh and joined with three other former MotoTron employees to found Renewegy, LLC, a manufacturer of wind turbines. It was Ehlers who showed me the joystick outboard prototype in 2008, and this week we discussed the challenges of applying a joystick control to outboards.
“On a boat with two outboards, the motors are mounted so close together, and so near the center of the boat, that it would be difficult to develop any side thrust,” says Ehlers. “On larger boats, you are using three or four outboards, so maybe you could use just the port and starboard engines in joystick mode, and they’d be far enough apart.”
The bigger issue is that multiple outboards are rigged just inches from each other. Twin sterndrive or onboard drives are likely several feet apart.
“You’d need to have enough clearance to point a motor away from the motor adjacent to it without having the cowls contact,” said Ehlers. “I think the same basic steering system used for the joystick sterndrives could be adapted to outboards. If you spread the motors far enough apart, you could make it work.”
The Volvo and MerCruiser systems using a joystick also have twin-propeller drives, which provide good thrust in both forward and reverse. That’s a benefit you would not have with a current outboard, although in 1996 Yamaha introduced a twin-prop Pro Vmax outboard for bass applications that they sold for a few seasons.
Working with Volvo to design a joystick system could give Yamaha a real leg up. In 2008 Ehlers told me that one-third of the cost of developing Zeus was for software and the validation of that software. Instead of starting from scratch, Yamaha could use the controls and software already developed by Volvo as a starting point, leveraging Volvo’s experience with digital drive/steering controls.
I checked in with Mercury this week to find out what happened to its outboard joystick program, and got the corporate “we don’t talk about future product” answer. I have no idea if the project was completed and put on the shelf due to the bad economy, or whether it hit a dead end. Clearly Yamaha sees some potential in a joystick for outboards, so stay tuned.