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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Jason Brune, project engineer at Thunderbird Products in Decatur, believes it’s only a matter of time before boats will be autonomous, but he cautions about safety.

  • The dashboard of a Formula 430 SSC boat shows the complexity of current vessels, which include features for lighting, lowering the anchor, water depth and navigation.

  • Michelle Davis | The Journal Gazette A nagigation panel puts the driver in total control of the Formula 430 SSC. The 43-foot-long boat is the company's most advanced model.

Sunday, October 08, 2017 1:00 am

Manufacturers don't see rush for driverless

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

The concept may sound intriguing, but two Fort Wayne-area manufacturers don’t expect a rush toward self-driving boats.

Boaters are a diverse group, and for many it’s a leisure activity, so they may not want to pay the potential cost for a high-tech autonomous water vehicle.

“I think it would be exciting for the industry to go that direction, but I think it’s going to be something that would be limited, for buyers with the means, and also with the interest to go that direction,” said Brandon Coward, manager at Splendor Boats in Silver Lake.

Splendor Boats manufactures deck boats, which are sometimes called “party boats,” based on seating capacity.

Coward said many of Splendor’s customers are 50 and older, and it’s sometimes a challenge just explaining how Bluetooth systems work. 

Autopilot technology has existed for several years, said Jason Brune, project engineer with Thunderbird Products, which manufactures Formula boats in Decatur.

“We’ve been equipping our boats with autopilot for as long as I can remember,” Brune said last week.

He thinks it is just a matter of time before various technology systems can be integrated to enable full autonomy.

But he also cautions about safety.

“Autopilot still requires the driver to maintain a constant look out,” Brune said. “It’s a little different than when you’re on a road and you’re like, ‘Hey, take us to this McDonald’s three blocks away.’”

Autopilot systems allow plotting “waypoints,” but boat operators must still keep their eye on how the boat is maneuvering, including watching for unexpected vessels or even rough water.

“You really have to trust that that system is going to react to unsafe situations regardless as to how attentive that driver is,” Brune said.