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June 16, 2010

Get Wired with Electronic Controls

Electronic controls for outboards smooth out your rough spots

Most of us have heard terms like "fly-by-wire" and, more properly, "electronic throttle and shift." But do those phrases and that technology mean anything to you, a fisherman?

Consider this scenario: You idle up to a school of bait with a buddy on the bow, coiled and ready with a cast net. You take the boat out of gear, but the school still swims just out of range. You engage the throttles, but not much happens. You press the gas oh so lightly lest you toss net boy into the drink. Still nothing.

Those testy cable throttles can be sticky and clunky enough to make even talented captains seem ham-handed.

Or how about this situation: Do you scout tuna, cobia or even redfish from a second station? Long cable runs can make piloting from a tower tough.

Electronic vs. Mechanical
For those situations and other reasons cited by outboard manufacturers - redundancy, ease of installation, reliability, engine synchronization - electronic controls seemingly outperform mechanical throttle-and-shift mechanisms. So why do we see this technology only on higher-horsepower outboards and from some (Yamaha, Mercury, Suzuki, Evinrude), but not all, manufacturers?

The easy answers: price and human nature.

Electronic controls can easily add $1,000 to $1,300 to the cost of an outboard package. That may seem pricey for an angler purchasing a single 150 hp outboard for a skiff but is of less concern for those buying triple 300 and 350 hp power plants.

"Like any technology out there, the more penetration you have with that technology, the cheaper it gets," says David Meeler, product marketing information manager for Yamaha, which pairs Command Link Plus electronic controls with the V8 F350 and new V6 Offshore series - the 4.2-liter F225, F250 and F300. "As people get accustomed to using it, they'll be requesting it in more applications."

Human nature enters the picture as manufacturers begin persuading seasoned boaters to leave a system they know to embrace a system based on computer technology operating in a marine environment.

However, because of its many pluses, electronic controls should quickly become an easy sell.

Simple and Reliable
Electronic controls entered the marine market in the 2000s but had already debuted in some cars and airplanes (hence the origin of "fly-by-wire"). The basic network for outboard-powered vessels involves installing electronic control modules in each engine and one or more control modules at the helm. The modules communicate over a wire connecting the two, using a standard controller-area network (CANbus). Each outboard company then employs a higher messaging standard, such as NMEA 2000 or Mercury's SmartCraft, on top of CANbus.

This network directs throttling and shifting and allows manufacturers to introduce loads of new features like engine sync, cruise control and troll control - functions not possible with mechanical systems. "With [Mercury's] Digital Throttle & Shift (DTS), you're running data lines rather than mechanical cables. You plug it in, set it up and it works," says John Wyant, associate brand manager for Mercury Marine, which rigs all Verados with DTS and offers the system for 200 and 225 hp Optimaxes (and other non-outboard products). "On the mechanical side, you always have to make sure there are no kinks [in the cables]. DTS is plug-and-play."