Fu­ture Shock

IS ELECTROMOBILITY POISED TO TAKE US BE­YOND THE IN­TER­NAL-COM­BUS­TION MA­RINE ENGINE? VOLVO PENTA THINKS SO. AND SOONER THAN YOU THINK.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY CAPT. BILL PIKE

Capt. Bill Pike re­ports from Swe­den, where he un­cov­ers Volvo Penta’s big plans to rev­o­lu­tion­ize boat­ing, again.

Volvo’s helm of the fu­ture would “ergonomically op­ti­mize” all e-mo­bile sys­tems.

Last sum­mer, by way of an­nounc­ing its re­cent pur­chase of out­board man­u­fac­turer Seven Ma­rine, Volvo Penta held an ex­tra­or­di­nary ma­rine press con­fer­ence. By this I mean the thing didn’t take place in a boat-show booth, with a cadre of ma­rine jour­nal­ists look­ing on. Or in a high-rise con­fer­ence room hired for a spe­cial roll-out, com­plete with a rub­ber-chicken din­ner.

In­stead, it oc­curred tele­phon­i­cally. On the line were the Volvo Penta brass in both Gothen­burg, Swe­den, and Ch­e­sa­peake, Vir­ginia; the Seven Ma­rine hon­chos in Ger­man­town, Wis­con­sin; and us—the jour­nal­ists—di­al­ing in from all over the world to lis­ten in and ask ques­tions.

It was an out-of-the-box deal, as far as I was con­cerned, and un­like any other press con­fer­ence I’d ever at­tended. But then, his­tor­i­cally, Volvo Penta has al­ways been an en­ve­lope-push­ing out­fit. It put the first stern drive on the mar­ket back in the late 50s, in­tro­duced the Duo­prop’s con­tra-ro­tat­ing pro­pel­lers to the recre­ational ma­rine scene in the early 80s and, just a decade ago, was first up with pod propul­sion.

Un­der­stand­ably, the theme of the Global Au­dio Con­fer­ence Call, as Volvo billed it, was big-time in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion horse­power—Seven, af­ter all, builds some of the most pow­er­ful, gaso­line-fired out­boards on the planet. So, to­ward the end of the af­fair, I’m re­ally not sure what made me toss out what was per­haps a fairly odd­ball ques­tion, given the cir­cum­stances. Maybe some­thing some­body had said ear­lier was spurring me on, some­thing about Volvo Penta broad­en­ing its tech­nol­ogy plat­form so it could of­fer mo­du­lar so­lu­tions, “re­gard­less of en­ergy source.”

At any rate, fig­ur­ing I’d get lit­tle more than a Swedish guf­faw, I nev­er­the­less asked Bjorn Inge­man­son, Pres­i­dent and CEO of Volvo Penta, if the boat­ing pub­lic should ex­pect a high-pow­ered elec­tric out­board from Volvo Penta any time soon. The shock I re­ceived from Inge­man­son’s re­sponse was (pun in­tended) flat-out elec­tric.

“One has only to look at the au­to­mo­tive seg­ment to see where things to­day are headed,” he said. “And elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is al­ready com­ing into the ma­rine in­dus­try. So, there are many things pos­si­ble that were not pos­si­ble be­fore.”

The Wind­mills of Swe­den

The months that fol­lowed proved in­ter­est­ing. At boat shows and other marinized shindigs around the coun­try, I con­tin­ued to hear tan­ta­liz­ing tid­bits con­cern­ing Volvo’s up-and-com­ing electromobility or “e-mo­bil­ity” pro­gram, although I couldn’t get a soul to say any­thing on the record.

And some of the stuff was pretty wild. One guy con­tended that Volvo Penta, an in­ter­nal com­bus­tion maven for more than a cen­tury, was go­ing “all elec­tric” within the decade. Wasn’t Volvo Cars mak­ing the switch in 2019, he ar­gued. And weren’t Volvo Cars, Volvo Group and its sub­sidiary Volvo Penta all owned by (or at least af­fil­i­ated with) Gee­ley, a Chi­nese multi­na­tional on track to elec­trify 90 per­cent of its au­to­mo­tive fleet by 2020? Then there was an­other guy who con­tended that Volvo Penta would soon add skunkworks ca­pa­bil­i­ties to the Seven Ma­rine fa­cil­ity in Wis­con­sin, so Volvo could de­velop (on the QT) a

sta­ble of brand-new, su­per-quiet, su­per-ef­fi­cient elec­tric out­boards. Just wait, he ad­vised.

Un­der­stand­ably, cu­rios­ity got the best of me. I con­tacted Volvo Penta, re­quested an in­ter­view with Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent and Chief Tech­ni­cal Of­fi­cer Jo­han In­den con­cern­ing all things elec­tric, and even­tu­ally found my­self fly­ing off to Swe­den, a coun­try that pro­duces much of its elec­tri­cal power via re­new­able re­sources. The lat­ter fact was strongly em­pha­sized by the num­ber of huge, mod­ern wind­mills I saw from above as my plane ap­proached Gothen­burg, the home of Volvo Penta’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters. There were lit­er­ally thou­sands of them.

Buses and Yachts

In­den and I sat down to­gether one af­ter­noon in one of the out­build­ings at Volvo Penta’s pic­turesque test fa­cil­ity on the edge of the Gothen­burg Ar­chi­pel­ago, an im­mense col­lec­tion of rocky, forested, mostly au­to­mo­bile-free is­lands where bi­cy­cles, boats, elec­tric cars and fer­ries are the stan­dard means of trans­porta­tion. We’d both just ar­rived from a small, select and quite con­ven­tional press con­fer­ence in Gothen­burg proper. There, Volvo Penta pres­i­dent Inge­man­son, In­den and a cou­ple of other Volvo prin­ci­pals had made two sig­nif­i­cant an­nounce­ments.

The first was a hoot. It ze­roed in on Volvo’s first self-dock­ing yacht, a 68-foot Az­imut (see “A Boat That Thinks on page 192”) that had just trans­ported us to the test fa­cil­ity. The sec­ond had wider-rang­ing im­pli­ca­tions per­haps. It her­alded Volvo’s first ma­jor foray into the field of ma­rine e-mo­bil­ity. An IPS-pow­ered elec­tric-hy­brid ves­sel (with twin Volvo Penta diesels in the 8- to 13-liter range) was sched­uled to launch in 2021.

Right from the get-go, it was ob­vi­ous that In­den sees hy­brid propul­sion as the true game changer—the first ma­jor step by a ma­jor engine com­pany into a fu­ture where both com­mer­cial and recre­ational ves­sels will be en­vi­ron­men­tally cleaner, more ef­fi­cient, qui­eter, smoother, eas­ier to use and more at­tuned to spe­cific ap­pli­ca­tions than they are to­day. How­ever, when I asked him how many years he thinks it will be be­fore ma­rine hy­brids and all-elec­tric driv­e­lines gain a sig­nif­i­cant share of the ma­rine mar­ket, he was a tad vague.

“One of my col­leagues on the truck side got al­most this same ques­tion the other day dur­ing a sem­i­nar,” In­den ob­served. “He was asked when half of his rev­enue base or half of his prod­ucts will go all-elec­tric. And I think he had a very good an­swer—he said he had no idea. But also, just imag­ine—yes­ter­day, we might have ques­tioned if electromobility would re­ally hap­pen. To­day, it is about how fast it will hap­pen and how we will scale up for an elec­tric fu­ture. In­deed, we are see­ing rel­e­vant electromobility tech­nolo­gies in ser­vice right now as we speak.”

Such tech­nolo­gies have one thing in com­mon, ac­cord­ing to In­den: pre­dictable us­age pat­terns. It’s no co­in­ci­dence, he pointed out, that buses were the first form of electromobility that Volvo put on the mar­ket. Buses, af­ter all, op­er­ate within highly pre­dictable pa­ram­e­ters, run­ning the same routes daily and mak­ing the same stops where equip­ment can fa­cil­i­tate charging. On the ma­rine front, pas­sen­ger fer­ries, wa­ter taxis and tour boats are sim­i­lar—run­ning times are pre­dictably bus-like and so are charging lo­gis­tics. So, nu­mer­ous elec­tric ves­sels of the type are al­ready on the wa­ter to­day.

“How­ever, a yacht—which must be more ver­sa­tile—is not as easy as all this,” In­den con­tin­ued. “For ex­am­ple, you may not de­cide where you’re go­ing with your yacht and how far un­til you are ac­tu­ally on board. Or you may ar­rive at your des­ti­na­tion and find a prob­lem with your ac­com­mo­da­tion, so you change your plans. Full electromobility un­der such un­cer­tain cir­cum­stances is more chal­leng­ing. So, this is why we will see over the up­com­ing decades the spread of this tech­nol­ogy with con­ven­tional propul­sion con­tin­u­ing, but also with hy­bridized driv­e­lines that pro­vide full-diesel for plan­ing speeds off­shore, full-elec­tric for moor­ing or when ap­proach­ing a dock, or maybe both, where you use the elec­tric mo­tor to boost the diesel power to get over the plan­ing thresh­old, among other things.”

How It Works

Volvo’s been do­ing R&D work on land-based e-mo­bil­ity for sev­eral years and, in fact, al­ready has an e-mo­bil­ity de­vel­op­ment and test lab in Gothen­burg. More­over, less than 10 years ago, Volvo Group stopped build­ing and sell­ing buses pow­ered by diesel en­gines ex­clu­sively and made the switch to elec­tric. To­day the com­pany has over 6,000 hy­brid and full-elec­tric buses on city streets world­wide.

These de­tails, seem­ingly un­re­lated to the de­vel­op­ment of a hy­brid­elec­tric yacht, are nev­er­the­less quite ger­mane for one ma­jor rea­son— Volvo is us­ing its highly suc­cess­ful and fully vet­ted hy­brid-elec­tric bus tech­nol­ogy to de­velop the IPS-pow­ered hy­brid it will launch in 2021. While one hy­brid ver­sion will be marinized and the other not, the drive trains (ex­cept for trans­mis­sions), Lithium-ion bat­tery packs and many other com­po­nents will be more or less the same.

The IPS-hy­brid sys­tem it­self is of the par­al­lel type, mean­ing diesel and elec­tric power can be em­ployed si­mul­ta­ne­ously as well as sep­a­rately. To achieve this, a clutch and an elec­tric mo­tor/gen­er­a­tor (with an in­verter con­trol­ling both the mo­tor’s torque and speed through a 600-volt DC bus sys­tem) are com­pactly spliced into the drive train be­tween the diesel engine and the IPS pod. Lithium-ion bat­tery packs sup­ply juice to the mo­tor (and for ho­tel loads) and can be charged ei­ther by the prime mover or via a re­mote AC or DC charger. An elec­tri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem routes elec­tri­cal ex­changes amongst the bat­tery packs, the mo­tor and other pe­riph­eral com­po­nents.

How does the sys­tem ac­tu­ally work? When you dis­en­gage the clutch,

the boat runs ex­clu­sively in the full-elec­tric mode while achiev­ing top speeds, ac­cord­ing to Volvo, in the 10- to 12-knot range. En­gag­ing the clutch puts both diesel and elec­tric power into the propul­sion sys­tem.

Of course, the virtues of a hy­brid pow­er­plant are nu­mer­ous. First of all, in full-elec­tric mode a hy­brid is es­sen­tially emis­sion-free, gen­er­ally qui­eter than an in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion engine and less prone to vi­bra­tion. And then, while ma­neu­ver­ing dock­side, boat han­dling torque tends to be more ro­bust and in­stan­ta­neous with full-elec­tric power. And fi­nally, there’s the bat­tery cus­tomiza­tion thing—the size and num­ber of bat­tery packs can be tai­lored to the pur­poses of a given ves­sel. Where a great deal of elec­tri­cal power may be re­quired, say, for con­tin­ual or long ex­cur­sions through en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive ar­eas, add bat­ter­ies. Where less elec­tri­cal power is re­quired, sim­ply sub­tract.

A Prophet in a White Shirt

By the time I’d fin­ished speak­ing with In­den, I was truly in­trigued. For starters, he seemed like an em­i­nently prac­ti­cal, down-to-earth guy, with a pre­dictably con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, ma­rine safety and life in gen­eral. But then, a flair for the fab­u­lous kept com­ing up, of­ten un­ex­pect­edly and with gusto.

The first time I picked up on this was when I posed a ques­tion about bat­tery tech­nol­ogy. Lithium-ion dom­i­nates the e-mo­bil­ity scene these days, and I wanted to know what might be next. Might it be graphene— the space-age ma­te­rial that was all the rage some years ago, fiz­zled out but is now pos­si­bly mak­ing a come­back?

“My per­spec­tive,” In­den en­thused, “is that we don’t see any radical in­ven­tions like the one you men­tioned go­ing into in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion right now. And that means, I think, that the cur­rent tech­nol­ogy will stay with us for a cou­ple of tech­no­log­i­cal gen­er­a­tions, where each gen­er­a­tion lasts a few years and es­sen­tially dou­bles the en­ergy den­sity of the bat­ter­ies. How­ever, this is still quite ex­cit­ing—if you have one bat­tery pack to­day and you can run ten nau­ti­cal miles, five years from now you will be able to run twenty nau­ti­cal miles in the same boat with the same weight and foot­print.”

While bat­tery tech­nol­ogy is prob­a­bly e-mo­bil­ity’s big­gest hang-up these days, the prom­ise in­her­ent in the rapid pace of en­ergy-den­sity de­vel­op­ment he’d just de­scribed seemed to en­er­gize In­den, caus­ing him to fer­vently re­visit a fu­tur­is­tic sce­nario he’d briefly out­lined dur­ing the press con­fer­ence in Gothen­burg that morn­ing.

The sce­nario opened in a har­bor city where a ship-load­ing fa­cil­ity oc­cu­pies one side of the wa­ter­way (with elec­tric cranes, elec­tric ter­mi­nal trac­tors, par­tially ro­botic elec­tric truck trains and au­tonomously op­er­ated elec­tric barges) and a ma­rina oc­cu­pies the other.

“Now, as a boat owner, I might go to this ma­rina in an elec­tric bus,” In­den sug­gested, “and maybe, on the bus, I will bring out my tablet and tell my boat—it will be ei­ther full-elec­tric or hy­brid-elec­tric—that I am com­ing and that I will be at the bus stop near the ma­rina at suc­hand-such a time. The boat will then pre­pare it­self au­to­mat­i­cally—it will go on­line, check that ev­ery­thing is in or­der, and soon send me a short di­ag­nos­tic re­port that as­sures me all is well be­fore I take the trou­ble to get off the bus.”

“Then I wouldn’t be sur­prised,” In­den con­tin­ued, “that the boat can ac­tu­ally dis­patch it­self, via the self-dock­ing op­tion you have al­ready wit­nessed to­day. It checks the sur­round­ing area, trav­els smoothly, qui­etly and with no emis­sions over to the place where I may be get­ting off the bus and then away we go on our cruise. Maybe there’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal or leg­isla­tively-re­stricted zone that we will pass through where noise, speed and emis­sions are pre­vented, but we will have no prob­lem.

“And when we come back, my elec­tric boat will need charging, so why not have that take place at the same charging sta­tion that the bus uses? And then, once I de­part, my boat will sim­ply take it­self back to its slip where charging and shut­down pro­ce­dures can be com­pleted au­to­mat­i­cally.” “But is all this re­al­is­tic?” I asked, some­what wide-eyed. “We need imag­i­na­tion,” In­den re­sponded with a wide grin. “We need dreams; we need to think about how we can do things even bet­ter for the peo­ple who use our prod­ucts. That is our job here at Volvo Penta.”

I con­sid­ered these as­ser­tions for a mo­ment, then prof­fered a grin of my own. Ob­vi­ously, I was sit­ting across the ta­ble from a guy who seemed nor­mal in many ways—a fel­low who drives a nor­mal car, lives in a nor­mal house and cruises with his nor­mal fam­ily on nor­mal week­end boat trips around the Gothen­burg Ar­chi­pel­ago.

But then, just as ob­vi­ously, I also seemed to be sit­ting across the ta­ble from a prophet of sorts, in a white-startched shirt. And truth to tell, you had to se­ri­ously con­sider the things he was say­ing, not only be­cause of his in­flu­en­tial spot at the top of the ma­rine biz, but be­cause of where to­day’s evolv­ing tech­nolo­gies are gen­er­ally headed.

Is Volvo Penta’s vi­sion of boat­ing’s fu­ture, and the part e-mo­bil­ity will play in it, all that far-fetched? In­den doesn’t think so and, quite frankly, nei­ther do I.

Top, a schematic ren­der­ing of the IPS-hy­brid sys­tem shows how com­pact the elec­tric mo­tor/gen­er­a­tor (shown above mi­nus shroud) will be.

Top, Volvo has over 6,000 elec­tric buses in ser­vice world­wide. Bot­tom, it’s also in­volved in high-pro­file elec­tric ferry projects in Europe.

Volvo Penta’s Se­nior VP and Chief Tech­ni­cal Of­fi­cer Jo­han In­den.

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