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Have Electronic Devices Evolved Too Far?

Can We Stop Evolution?

As our relationship with electronics continues to change, we need to know what we want now more than ever.

Fifteen years ago, a new electronic product would usually stay on sale for five or six years. Now, many disappear within two or three years of their launch. It makes me wonder how long the flood of new products can last and where the current is taking us.

An iPad can help stream important data to your boat. But can it also become an distraction?

On a longish drive from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, to the resort where the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) held its annual convention, I got chatting with the taxi driver. As soon as I mentioned the word “electronics” he launched into a story about someone who thought he had lost his phone in his cab. “His whole life was in that phone,” the driver recounted. “It wasn’t just his phone numbers and photos. Without it, he couldn’t open his garage door, unlock his car, or turn his TV on!”

That got me thinking about how people are giving over huge amounts of responsibility to electronic devices. Why do we bother with steering wheels and engine controls? Why don’t we just drive our boats straight from our smartphones? Of course you’d want a backup—a second iPhone, perhaps—but it could certainly be done. And we’re not talking about some point in the distant future either. So far as I know, you can’t log onto iTunes and download BoatCaptain for $4.99, but I’ll bet someone is working on it right now—a smartphone app that could control and monitor an entire boat and manage everything from planning a passage to pumping out the black waste tank at the end of it. The essential technology is already in place.

We’ve been using autopilots to steer our boats for years. Now that chartplotters have morphed into multifunction displays (MFDs), separate autopilot control heads may some day become almost unnecessary. Many of those MFDs can control other boat systems too—everything from stereo systems to bilge pumps and sewage systems.

We have radios with Bluetooth handsets that allow us to wander round the boat without being tethered to the helm by a length of curly cable, satellite systems that will bring us e-mail and Internet across half an ocean for less than it costs to phone home from the Bahamas, and gizmos that will connect our boat to a Wi-Fi hot spot in a Starbucks five miles away. Systems can also turn our entire boat into a local Wi-Fi network with everything on our control panel duplicated on our iPad, and an entire library of instruction manuals stored on the hard drive that carries our stash of movies and music.

Slightly offset from all this mainstream electronic wizardry are engine controls. We see plenty of MFDs offering an array of engine-monitoring instruments as one of their “pages” of information, but actually controlling the engines seems to be something different until you realize that NMEA 2000—the current network standard for marine instruments—grew out of the “CANbus” system that was originally developed by the automotive industry. So the cables that carry engine-control commands from the levers to the engines are the same as those that carry engine-monitoring information back to the MFD, and the commands that are sent by the levers to the engine control units are sent in exactly the same kind of code as those that your MFD uses to dim the panel lighting or switch the baitwell pump on. Imagine a pair of slide switches on a smartphone touchscreen that you could manipulate to engage the engines and push the throttles forward. Just be sure to lock the screen before slipping the phone into your pocket!

Almost every step along the way—from the first transistorized fishfinders that were the first electronics to find their way into recreational craft through instrument systems, RDF and Loran and GPS to the highly integrated, enormously capable chartplotting, radar, and communications systems we have today, has been an improvement. Some steps have been better than others: I don’t quite understand why a “3-D” chart, for instance, is any better than one that contains exactly the same information in 2-D; to me, it looks just like a paper chart that has been crumpled up, flattened out again, and is now being looked at from some strange angle.

But maybe that’s just me. In today’s world, having the option of different views is the goal. And on the positive side, I like being able to see what’s going on in the engine room by looking at an MFD in the wheelhouse; I like the fact that a modern chartplotter will warn me if I’m about to go somewhere stupid, and I really love that it will tell me if an approaching ship is likely to pass a bit too close for comfort.

But I can’t help wondering whether all those steps might ultimately take us somewhere that we don’t really want to go. Do we really want boats without fixed steering wheels, engine controls, and instruments? And if not, who is going to say, “stop,” and when should they say it?

A straw poll of some of the major players at the NMEA convention suggests that although no one is likely to be jamming on the brakes, there is a general feeling that we will probably not be seeing boats without helm stations any time soon.

Jim Hands, marketing director at Raymarine, doesn’t think we can ignore mobile computing, but also points out that mobile computing devices aren’t built for boating applications. “They are for built for entertainment, for e-mail, Web browsing, and apps,” he says. “We still need dedicated marine devices that can withstand temperature, sunlight, and voltage fluctuations, and that can be seen at any angle.” But that, he adds, is only now: “You never know what the future may bring!”

Eric Kunz, senior product manager at Furuno, has similar reservations. “An iPhone as a primary means of controlling a boat?” he says. “No, that will never fly. What happens if you drop your phone? But as a secondary method, yes. That’s the way we’re going.”

But perhaps the most outspoken view is from Nobeltec’s general manager Bill Washburn, who questions whether we should ever stop. “The evolutions of technology are always better,” he says. “Maybe somebody would have had the same reaction to the evolution of steam engines onboard ships taking away the use of sails, or using hydraulics or engines to take away direct control of the rudder. Today, in our context, the evolution of technology into the future looks very scary—giving over control of primary navigation. But spaceships that go up to the moon are all digital control, fly by wire, and there are aircraft that cannot possibly fly without full electronic control.”

As for me, I think we will be able to control our boats from our phones before very long. We might even do so, every once in a while, to impress our friends. But even for the geekiest electronics enthusiast, dragging your finger across a touchscreen surely cannot be half as much fun as standing at the wheel and feeling the boat come alive as you nudge the throttles forward.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.