Piotr Zin lives aboard a houseboat moored in Lake Union in Seattle. After designing sailboats for 20 years and stints as a designer at BMW, General Motors, and Microsoft, among others, he had an epiphany about electric boats one day. He tells Devin Coldeway of TechCrunch, “The reason I started working on electric boats specifically is because I had a kid, and I had a come to Jesus moment. I realized: If we’re not going to do something personally about the quality of the water we live in, it’s not going to be here when my kid is my age.”
So Zin set about creating his own electric speedboat — called the Z2R — and formed his own company to build it. Unlike traditional watercraft, the hull is made of 100% carbon fiber. Why? Because it is lighter than fiberglass. The completed Z2R hits the water weighing a featherweight 1,750 pounds including batteries and motor, which is less than half what a similar conventional 20-foot runabout would weigh.
Zin says the Z2R has a range of up to 100 miles at normal cruising speeds. Push the throttle all the way forward and the speed will increase to about 35 mph but the range will drop considerably. “The power required to move a boat, versus the power to move a car, is absolutely enormous,” Zin explains. “It’s like driving a car in first gear at full throttle all the time.”
The Z2R uses a BMW i3 battery pack and an electric motor supplied by Torqueedo. The battery is mounted in the stern, but the motor is way up front under the front deck. “The boat was designed around the battery. The unique part of using an electric system is we can put the motor anywhere we want,” Zin says. By sitting it flat on the bottom, the center of gravity is lowered and weight distribution evened out compared to most speedboats. “You look at a lot of traditional boats’ builds, they kind of cram everything in the back. Then when you put the hammer down, you can’t see anything for five seconds. In this boat, there’s no bow rise — it sits flat.”
Anyone who has ever driven a boat with an outboard engine knows the feeling. Slam the throttle forward and the bow rises toward the heavens until the engine(s) generate enough forward progress to get the hull up on a plane. Imagine how different it must be to pilot a craft that leaps straight ahead instantly when you whistle down to the engine room for full power without filling your field of vision with nothing but sun and the clouds first.
Zin designed the boat himself using high performance fluid dynamics software and scale models to create the shape of the hull. “Boat building is a very traditional business,” he says. “Most builders aren’t about innovation, they’re about ‘this is how we do it.’ But there’s a huge advantage in being able to use these tools. The computing power that we have in video cards just in the last few years, mainly because of the gaming industry, has pushed what’s possible further and further.”
He tells TechCrunch that companies which offer large computational fluid dynamics services would have users submit their parameters and pick a few milestone speeds at X thousand dollars per data point — 10 knots, 20 knots, and so on. The way the water would react to the boat and vice versa would be calculated at those speeds and extrapolated for speeds in between. But with increases in computing power, that’s no longer necessary. Using his own computer stack, Zin was able to calculate the water’s behavior continuously at all speeds and in high definition.
“Right now you can run the boat [in the simulation] at any speed you want and see the way the water will spray, including little droplets. And then you can tweak the shape of your hull to make sure those droplets don’t hit the passengers. It’s not exactly the way most boat designers would do it. So utilizing high end software that was not really being given its full potential was amazing.”
Just as Tesla is more a technology company than just another car company, Zin says the Z2R and other models to come are as much about technology as boating. He gives credit to Tesla and the Roadster 2.0 for showing the way forward for electric transportation, telling Pim Van Hemmen of Soundings Online, “Tesla is the best thing that could have happened for us, because they proved that an electric vehicle is a high-performance vehicle. They showed the world that electric can perform better, have a similar or better range, and deliver it in a beautiful design. Plus, it’s quiet, and it’s clean, and it’s cheap to operate, so why not do it?”
The cockpit of the Z2R is as pure and functional as the interior of a Tesla Model 3, with the electronics and touchscreen arrayed in a center stack. Self-driving capability is included along with over-the-air updates anywhere in the world. Set a destination and the boat’s software will automatically adjust a speed that always allows for enough battery power to reach the nearest charger. Using the electrical feed available in most marinas, the Z2R can get an extra 50 miles of range in the time it takes to grab lunch.
“I realized that there isn’t such a thing as a boat company any more,” says Zin. “Part of what we do is to build that shell that holds everything, and it happens to be moving through the water, which makes it a boat, but that’s really where the boating part of it ends. It’s really a technology hub, and my company is not just a boat company, it has to be a technology company.
“We don’t only have a plan like, just make one really fast boat,” he adds. “We know what we want to do with this technology right now, we know what we’re going to do with this technology in 24 months, and 48 months; I wish I could show you some of this stuff. It’s tough, and we need to survive this year, but this is just the start.”
Who Wants A $250,000 Electric Boat?
The Z2R ain’t cheap. At $250,000, it costs more than many comparably sized boats. But Zin points out it costs less to operate than those other boats. Electricity is inexpensive compared to gasoline or diesel. There are boats out there on the water that suck down more than $100 an hour worth of fuel. There’s virtually no maintenance, either. Ask any boat owners and they will tell you a boat is a hole in the water into which you throw money. This conversation should sound familiar to anyone who has ever talked to people about why they should purchase an electric car. The issues are virtually the same — initial cost vs. total cost of ownership.
The first customers are expected to be well-heeled boaters who can afford a runabout with an interior that looks and feels like it came straight out of a Mercedes S Class, but with a desire to go through life with a lighter carbon footprint. “There are a lot of inquiries from Europe where the environmental restrictions are stricter than in North America,” Zin says.
“But we also have a number of pristine lakes that are electric-only for the purpose of keeping them clean. So if you live on a lake in Montana that’s electric-only, you have the option to go at five knots, and you can’t even cross the lake because the boat is so slow or you can have a fully functional powerboat that you can water ski behind, the same speeds you get in a gas power boat, but it’s absolutely emissions free. I mean, this boat is as clean as it gets — there’s zero oil, zero gasoline, zero anything that will get into the water.”
From the sound of things, Zin has big plans for the future. Today, he is more or less where Elon Musk was a decade ago. The world needs transportation that does not rely on fossil fuels. If Zin Boats is able to match half of what Tesla has accomplished, more power to it. It should also be pointed out that Zin and Musk are both immigrants. That should be a valuable lesson there for those who want to see America reclaim its place as a leader on the world stage.
Hat Tip to Ken Anderson