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December 22, 2008

Fly by Wire

Digital controls are changing the way outboards are rigged and operated

"DTS is a new twist on a classic piece of boating equipment," Duke adds. "It's a very robust system. We put it through 900 hours of saltwater exposure and UV testing, followed by more tests at Sandia National Laboratory for safety and reliability before the initial release. End users love DTS. It represents a real change that ultimately means more boating and less work."

Yamaha's Command Link digital electronic controls, introduced on the F350 V-8 four-stroke, are safety oriented, as well. The connecting harness has three wires for redundancy. Two wires connect to each sensor, so if one fails, the signals still transmit on the other. Each engine has a separate control-box module.

"We try to build as much safety as possible into the system," says Dave Wheeler, the product information manager for Yamaha Outboards. "Command Link is based on NMEA 2000 protocol, so it's been thoroughly tested. If communication is lost, you can still take the engine cowling off and manually override the shift using a No. 2 screwdriver. So you always have get-home capability," he explains.

Angling Advantages
Individual differences aside, there are several features common to all three manufacturers' digital throttle systems that are practical for anglers. With twin or triple engines, the computers will maintain a constant rpm level using a built-in synchronizer, so you don't have to bump one throttle lever to match the other. The synchronizer function can be manually overridden, however.

In a triple-engine application, all three engines can be controlled using only two throttle levers. The center outboard follows one of the outside engines in normal operating conditions. When the need for low-speed maneuvering arises, like in docking or loading the boat on the trailer, the center engine can be turned off or switched to idle. Mercury's docking mode gives a choice of 50-percent power reduction while maintaining full throw of the throttles. "That lets you tame the beast at the dock," Duke explains.

Trolling mode is another practical function available with digital controls. With this option selected, the engines can be fine-tuned in small rpm increments to set and maintain the optimum trolling speed.

Due to the single, color-coded wiring harness, installing a secondary station in a tower or cockpit is simply a matter of routing the extra harness for "plug-and-play" simplicity.  Suzuki made their installation even more foolproof by using the same connectors on both ends of the harness. Bottom line: Because digital controls take less time to install, the consumer saves money on the labor bill.

But new technology doesn't come cheap. Digital controls cost more than the mechanical ones they replace. The additional charge can run as high as $1,500. With some engines, like Yamaha's F350, for example, digital controls are required, so the cost is built into the retail price.

Consider this, though: Those original, clunky cellular phones you had to lug around in a tote bag were pricey when they first came out. But it didn't take long before demand shrank both the size and price. The same thing will happen with digital throttles. Only this time, it won't take as long.