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Boat maker Brunswick charts course for autonomous electric future

Brunswick (BC) has been around since the 1840s, making everything from billiards and bowling goods, to in recent years being one of the biggest names in marine equipment and boatmaking.

In the company’s latest earnings report for the second quarter, Brunswick delivered its first ever quarter of $300 million in operating earnings, along with record sales and EPS. This as the boating industry continued to see strength in a market slowly recovering from the pandemic.

The company behind marine brands like Boston Whaler and Sea Ray boats and Mercury marine engines is also embracing the future of boating with its "ACES" strategy — Autonomy, Connectivity, Electrification, and Shared Access.

At its roadshow, or marine-show if you will, in lower Manhattan this week, Brunswick showcased some of this technology, as well as some of its newer boats.

Sea Ray Sundancer 370
Sea Ray Sundancer 370 (Brunswick Corporation)

The company has been making many acquisitions in the marine space both building up its powertrain and motors business, as well as technology and connected systems offerings. The first part of the strategy was autonomy - and sketching what this looks like in the boating world.

Brunswick is offering features like “assisted docking” where a boat equipped with the system can use machine vision tech to sense and identify potential obstacles in the boat’s path to help with docking.

“The way we introduce autonomy, or ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems) type features is in a way that tries to help the operator in some of the more stressful situations like docking, or holding a boat in place,” says Brunswick CEO David Foulkes in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Boston Whaler Outrage 360
Boston Whaler Outrage 360 (Brunswick Corporation)

Brunswick recognizes that boaters like to captain and drive their boats but would like help with certain tasks. The boats can also do a lot on their own, including taking the wheel.

With features like autopilot, Foulkes says boats “will follow a prescribed course, which is obviously very helpful if you’re traversing large bodies of water.” Brunswick will eventually roll out more features like full auto docking, in which the boat will pull into dock all on its own, and collision avoidance systems that are seen on cars at the moment.

When it comes to electrification, it’s a trickier situation because of the limits of piloting a vessel through a medium like water. Unlike road cars, the amount of power and energy necessary to travel through water is much higher than the equivalent distance on road, meaning traveling long distances with electric power on boats is not feasible because of the amount of battery density needed.

For shorter distances and on smaller bodies of water like freshwater lakes, Brunswick’s Mercury division has introduced its Avator line of outboard motors for these applications — think tender boats for ferrying people from a larger boat to shore or river cruise boats that travel shorter distances.

Mercury Avator concept electric motor
Mercury Avator concept electric motor (Brunswick Corporation)

“It is possible to go to higher power in marine applications, but boats are very weight sensitive,” Foulkes said. “We don’t have brakes where we can regenerate energy, so it is a more difficult equation to satisfy than automotive technology right now.”

Where electric power and batteries do help tremendously, at the present moment, is powering all the other systems, appliances and ancillary equipment that boats require. In the past a generator or “house motor” would power features like the onboard kitchen, electrics, plumbing, etc. using gas or diesel power.

Now Brunswick, through its Fathom e-Power system, can power all loads a boat requires without the need for a gas-powered generator. The Fathom e-Power system is more efficient, and is completely silent versus a generator that must be on at all times when the boat is in operation.

Boston Whaler Outrage 360
Boston Whaler Outrage 360 (Brunswick Corporation)

The final pillar of the ACES strategy, Shared Access, relates to Brunswick’s latest venture in subscription boating, or boating as a service, with its Freedom Boat Club subsidiary. Members of the club pay a monthly subscription fee and get access to boats at a home port or other ports throughout the world. The boat fleets are maintained by Freedom Boat club, meaning much of the work and time spent maintaining a boat is taken care of by the service.

Foulkes is genuinely excited by the service. He notes that the median age of Freedom Boat Club members is younger than traditional boat buyers, and more diverse, with women making up a strong number of the client base. More people getting access to boats is good thing for an industry traditionally associated with small sliver of the population.

As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats — and for Brunswick, profits.

Pras Subramanian is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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