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December 22, 2008

Fly by Wire

Digital controls are changing the way outboards are rigged and operated

From smart phones and cameras to entertainment systems, the digital age is changing the way we work and play. The same holds true for boating. Every month my colleague, Glenn Law, describes in his column how marine electronics are going digital faster than a Pentium chip.

But the impact doesn't end there. High horsepower outboards with computerized control modules maximize performance and fuel efficiency. Networking capability between the gauges and components lets the operator monitor various functions. Digital technology is also rapidly shifting, literally, to the helm. Mercury, Suzuki and Yamaha all now offer electronic "fly-by-wire" engine throttle controls on select outboard models. The advantages of using data rather than cable are numerous.

"With digital controls, there's no cable binding or play, so the operator has smooth, positive shifting at all times and precise throttle response, especially at low rpm levels," says Gus Blakely, a sales manager with Suzuki Outboards. "It's as close to clunk-free shifting as you can get."

Rig Faster and Easier
Initial rigging time is greatly reduced with digital controls because of the single wiring harness. That simplicity makes it easier to connect multiple engines or add secondary control stations. After installation, digital throttles are virtually maintenance-free. Waterproof connectors and the absence of mechanical cables minimize corrosion. Best of all, users can adjust throttle friction levels and other settings based on personal preference.

"Once someone switches over to digital, they'll never go back to standard controls," says Blakely. "The only reason we haven't gone totally digital is the price. As electronic components get cheaper, I expect we'll see greater integration throughout the industry."

Mercury Outboards offers the most applications for its digital throttle and shift (DTS) system. The Verado line of four-stroke engines - from 135- up to 350-horsepower - are all DTS-ready. So are two mid-range OptiMax direct-injection models. For each, the controls are integrated within their proprietary SmartCraft system.

"Ours is truly a complete integration," says Ben Duke, the product line manager for SmartCraft. "It starts with our proprietary controlled area network (CAN), which is different from the NMEA protocol. We also build every part of the system ourselves, from the propellers to the engine, gear box, wiring harnesses and controls.