Sunday, May 18, 2008

World’s first standard hybrid yacht launches — but may be more style than substance

On a fast cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge, Austrian boat manufacturer Frauscher just launched the world’s first luxury motor yacht with a hybrid engine, developed together with Austrian engine manufacturer Steyr Motors.

Hybrid cars have already established themselves as the modern fuel-efficient alternative to petrol cars. But on a warm day, many people will leave their car behind for a much less efficient vessel on the water: Most boats today are powered by dirty diesel engines. Pure electric boats have been around since the late 19th century, but will rarely go faster than 5 or 6 knots (about 10 km/h). Frauscher and Steyr combined the two to offer high speed with a claim to environmental friendliness. I went for a test ride to see how it works.

The Frauscher hybrid has a traditional diesel engine connected to an electric engine. The combustion engine can be started with the electric motor, so there’s no need for a conventional starter motor. With the electric start, the boat will also save every seventh liter of fuel that a normal combustion engine burns during cold starts, according to Steyr.

The boat can drive “zero emission” on the electric engine in speeds up to 5 knots, with several lead-acid batteries supplying the energy. But with a turn of the key, the boat switches to diesel drive mode. At low speeds (the boat reaches 38 knots maximum), the electric engine works in the same way as a starter engine and boosts the diesel engine to create faster acceleration while lowering fuel consumption, although it wasn’t clear how much diesel is saved by the “boost”.

The batteries are recharged whenever the diesel engine is being used. It takes about an hour for the batteries to recharge completely.

Frauscher is a family-owned company with a turnover of $15 million in 2007. Prices start at $150,000 for the 5.6 meter tall St. Tropez-style hybrid yacht, like the one displayed at St. Francis Yacht Club on Friday. The hybrid costs about $20,000 more than a traditional engine.

Last year the company shipped about 150 boats out of its production base in Gschwandt, Austria. Managing Director Michael Frauscher, grandson of company founder Engelbert Frauscher, wouldn’t give an exact forecast of how many hybrids he expects to sell. “But for us this marks a very big thing. There are no boats like this in the American market,” he said.

The Frauscher yachts sell in 14 nations, including the USA, Russia and Korea. California Chris-Craft, a dealer of fine leisure boats with five outlets along the American West Coast, will be the first distributor in the world to offer the new Frauscher/Steyr hybrids. The hybrid electric motor will be available for all Frauscher’s motor yacht styles.

At start, the ride was completeley noiseless. But once out of the marina Frauscher turned the key to switch to the diesel engine, and as the boat jumped its way through the waves it began to burn as much fuel as any other motor yacht.

In the end, the Frauscher yacht gave me the impression of being more stylish than environmentally friendly. Like many technologies touted as “green”, the part-electric system could just serve as an excuse — giving serial over-consumers a green light to go out and burn even more fuel on sunny days.

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