Next Generation Propulsion Innovation

Compelling forces for change

Kim Hollamby
Monday, 26 June 2023

Christoph Ballin, co-founder of electric hydrofoil start-up Tyde and breakthrough electric propulsion pioneer Torqeedo, considers which factors will influence marine leisure sector product innovation in coming years.

The automotive industry uses a framework called ACES when talking about the mega trends shaping mobility of the future. It stands for Autonomous, Connected, Electric (or more broadly –climate neutral energy sources) and Shared (vehicles). 

All four points have relevance in the marine industry today. My calling has predominantly been in climate friendly propulsion and the ‘E’ in this framework is where I naturally start when considering which developments will influencing developments in the leisure marine sector over the next few years. 
Climate friendly propulsion does not address all environmental problems – we must also create a true circular economy, deal with garbage in the oceans and improve biodiversity among other priorities. But there is much to achieve in the area of carbon friendliness, particularly because the marine industry is losing ground versus other mobility segments in this area.

Slow adoption of electric propulsion 

Looking back on a speech I gave in 2018, I reported the global share of electric cars at two per cent versus one per cent for electric boats in their respective marketplaces. The methodology and assumptions I used could be questioned, but on that estimate, our progress was not so far away from automotive. Five years later the electric vehicle sector has climbed to 14 per cent of market share while leisure marine is at two or three per cent for electric propulsion. The gap is widening, and we are not making the same level of progress.

Looking at it qualitatively and quantitatively to understand what is happening, each segment of land transport has climate friendly solutions that are growing in volume, whether small cars, luxury vehicles, minivans, SUVs, pickups, trucks and buses. Not all these EV segments have big market share yet, but there are strong, credible players involved in every area, backed by big financial resources.

In the marine industry we are decarbonising the segments that are easiest to tackle – typically small boats, slower vessels, and shorter-range applications. We’re making good progress in those areas, but collectively this comprises a small part of the marine industry and will not help us with all the other large segments where are making zero progress. Tackling these harder, larger segments is where I expect to see change in coming years.

Creating products and technologies that enable change

I believe the marine industry needs to create more products to address the challenge of decarbonising the whole industry. Look at batteries for one example where densities are announced to rise phenomenally in the next couple of years after slower progress in recent times. Chinese manufacturer CATL, a primary supplier to Tesla, has announced its intention to produce semi-solid-state batteries with 500 Wh/kg energy density. To put that in context we are typically at 160 Wh/kg currently. This kind of news indicates hope for an order of magnitude change in energy storage.

Marine companies will also need to approach some challenges differently to automotive. Land transport can mostly use the relatively high efficiency of battery powered electric propulsion but for marine applications we often need more energy, for longer. Elon Musk has said that batteries will power everything on the water, even container ships. However, most experts don’t believe that. I’m waiting to see what the forthcoming ICOMIA Life Cycle Analysis and Decarbonisation Study reveals – my expectation is it will highlight that battery power is not a solution for all marine applications and we’ll need more types of climate friendly energy sources, such as hydrogen and/or e-fuels.

Industry cannot argue its way out of action

It is important for the marine industry to move forward on sustainability – either we prepare for it ourselves, or at points in time the regulators or public opinion will force us to act on their terms.

I hear statements about how little the recreational marine industry contributes to global warming. That is true, but it is the wrong point to make. We will not get an exception and be able to carry on business as usual to deliver pleasure for people who want to go out on the water, as we are doing today.

Other developments

As for other developments, I believe the trend for products and services to become more connected to make boating easier and more attractive will continue. 
We are also seeing good progress on autonomous technologies and that should have reached a level of maturity within the next five years, but regulatory hurdles are likely to limit technologies to high-performance assistance systems. The Ukraine War has accelerated drone development also for unmanned surface vehicles. We’ll see a move beyond cameras and radar for sensing what is around a boat and greater use of AI.

The industry will have to become much more knowledgeable about how to create a genuinely circular economy and discover and qualify new materials and processes that enable that objective. As humankind we spent the last 200 years building tremendous growth and dragging billions out of poverty by increasingly exploiting resources and creating garbage and emissions. That model probably works for an Earth with four billion people but not an Earth with double that population. Even as we want to increase the qualities of our lives and the time we spend together in leisure, we need to learn how to do that while reducing our impacts on the environment. 

The challenge for our industry will be how to maintain the magic and fascination of boating as a pastime, while making it authentically sustainable. Some of the solutions we need will come from the much more inventive boat and product designs we are seeing everywhere now, some from technological breakthrough. However, we’ll also we’ll need the right mindset to create respectful products with environmental integrity that future generations can enjoy for many years to come. 

About the author

Christoph is the Co-founder and Managing Director at Tyde. As Co-founder and long-term CEO of Torqeedo, he has been working towards climate friendly boating for 18 years. Christoph serves on the Advisory Board of SEA.AI, a marine artificial intelligence startup. Prior to Torqeedo, Christoph has held executive positions at Gardena AG and started his career as Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company. He holds a PhD for his research in market dynamics.