Sea — June 2002
By Capt. Bill Pike
|Part 2: The Japanese have chosen to pour whopping amounts of R&D into developing the perfect four-stroke outboard.|
The record thus far is mixed. There are few outboard-attuned folks kicking around these days who don't know about the problems OMC had with its FICHT two-strokes, problems that no doubt contributed to its ultimate collapse. In recent years Mercury has had some two-stroke hassles of its own, mainly with 225-hp OptiMax engines. Sources blame a manufacturing shift to foreign shores for parts. After initial difficulties, Yamaha, on the other hand, appears to be purring along quite well with its HPDI (High Pressure Direct Injection) powerhead, its own version of the environmentally correct, two-stroke package.
But consider this. Whether because of the complexity of modern two-stroke technology or the high level of precision required to manufacture it, the Japanese have chosen to pour whopping amounts of R&D into developing the perfect four-stroke outboard. Does this mean that highly sophisticated, clean-burning, fuel-injected, modern two-strokers are just too complicated and breakdown-prone to survive? Does it mean that the technology behind the reliable 200-hp OptiMax on my own boat is somehow flawed, even doomed to ignominious extinction?
I really don't think so--by all accounts, Mercury and Yamaha alike remain committed to the modern two-stroke, primarily because of its acceleration edge and other performance advantages. Moreover, beyond all the doom-saying about the modern two-cycle outboard, there's another way to look at the rumored technology transfer, a way I alluded to in this column last July. The column was based on a trip I took to Holland, during which I visited a consortium of builders, designers, engineers, and manufacturers who, for economic, logistical, and other reasons, openly and routinely swap and share R&D. I argued at the time, Why not import the practice to the States? It works like gangbusters for the Dutch!
Of course, the idea of sharing technology with competitors is not completely new here in America. Automakers have been doing it for decades, and in a limited way, so have American marine engine manufacturers. Indeed, Yamaha and Mercury cooperated to develop some smaller Mariner outboards more than 30 years ago. But the scale of this latest venture surpasses anything that's gone before. And its potential benefits, as well as the benefits that may come from others like it in the future, are almost sure to be good for consumers, for three solid reasons.
First, speedier development and dissemination of new marine technology is likely to result via the creation of additional sales and marketing channels. By doing a deal on four-stroke powerheads, Yamaha and Mercury will immediately boost the number of outlets where customers can buy the technology and have it serviced. Arguably, such a move will radically open up or "grease the rails" of product distribution.
Second, by effectively reducing or more evenly spreading around R&D costs, both Yamaha and Mercury may be able to cut their retail prices. Additionally, there's a chance that reduced R&D in one area may free up money for R&D in others. To be more specific, let's say Mercury is able to develop refinements to Yamaha's technology once it gets ahold of it--the company may then conceivably share these refinements with Yamaha or even other manufacturers. Which is good for everybody!
Third, if Yamaha and Mercury do a deal, it's likely that the buying public will have way more choices at the retail level. Consider a customer who lives in a Mercury-dominated geographical area--put Yamaha powerheads under the black cowlings in the showroom he's been frequenting for years, and he'll be able to buy Yamaha technology and service in some shape or form for the first time ever, locally. Also, if Yamaha indeed hands off its four-stroke powerhead to Mercury, customers who are looking to buy a particular boat that's normally sold with just one brand of engine will be readily able to opt for the other.
Sound good? Stay tuned.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.