The future of outboard steering? Dometic Optimus All-Electric Steering system
Dometic’s Optimus All-Electric Steering represents a major change to a critical system onboard the highest volume sector of boating and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it the future of outboard steering. I’ve now tested Dometic’s steering and my enthusiasm for the system has only grown. It has delivered on the promise of simple installation and operation while allowing precise control without hydraulics. Be warned, all this excellence comes at a higher price but probably not forever.
When I bought Panbo(at) (my 22′ Cobia Center Console) it came with well used — and at the time, leaking — BayStar hydraulic steering. After replacing the seals on the hydraulic ram, the leak was resolved, and after twice purging the system, I had working and reliable steering. But, I didn’t find the steering to be very accurate or responsive and the effort was pretty high.
My reservations about the existing steering meant I was pretty excited about the prospect of trying out a new and different option. I was already quite aware of Dometic’s system having seen it at IBEX, METS TRADE, and MIBS and covered it here after it’s introduction and IBEX Innovation Award win. Everything I’d learned about it during my research for my previous article only increased my optimism about the impact it could have.
The steering system
Dometic’s All-Electric Steering (AES) consists of two primary components. First, the electric actuator that sits at the stern connected to the outboard or outboards (one per engine) and second, the electronic, drive-by-wire helm unit to which the steering wheel mounts. The helm unit is shared with Dometic’s Optimus electric / hydraulic systems that utilize drive-by-wire technology from the helm to the transom where hydraulic pumps and rams take over. The all-electric actuator used here is brand new and represents a lot of technology of which Dometic is rightly proud. As you can see in the cutaway drawing above, the actuator moves the motor by spinning roller screws inside the threaded body of the actuator.
In addition to the two primary components each AES system also has a display and wiring harness. The wiring harness connects to the side of the actuator, the boat’s batteries, the helm unit and the boat’s NMEA 2000 network. In total there are three CANBus networks running with two used for communications between helm units and the actuators and the third for communicating with the boat’s NMEA 2000 electronics. The display is currently required in all installations.
Multi-engine installs with digitally controlled outboards can also add a joystick for easier manuevering and optionally dynamic positioning and autopilot. The Joystick includes a high precision attitude, heading, and position sensor package to enable the system to safely and accurately manuever the vessel.
Before beginning the installation I was most concerned about the difficulty of pulling the relatively large wiring bundle through the boat. Fortunately Cobia built the boat with a 4″ PVC rigging tube (visible in the background of the left picture) that was only about half full. Between the relatively empty chase, the use of fiberglass wire fishing rods, and the assistance of my petite, 12-year old daughter Molly — who I parked upside down inside the console to grab the wire bundle as it came through — the wiring harness was quickly in place. I was fortunate there was lots of room in the wiring chase as the harness isn’t small and the large rectangular connector ahead of smaller diameter wiring can make for difficult pulling.
Emboldened by my success pulling the wiring I moved onto testing the setup with all the components in the boat. In order to complete the installation I was going to have to remove the existing Baystar system and before ripping out the old I wanted to know the new was going to work. I was able to make it as far as the display wanting to calibrate (which I skipped because with the actuator not secured I wasn’t sure how it would work out) and everything looked good.
The time had arrived to crack the old hydraulic lines, drain them as much as I could, and get the ram off the motor. That last part turned out to be the hardest step in the entire install. It took lots of pushing, pulling, pounding, and even an errant wrench to the forehead to get the old, saltwater corroded ram free.
Installing the actuator was as simple as following the diagram and making sure all the washers, spacers and nuts went on in the right place and in the right order. The last piece is connecting the ram to the tiller arm. See that washer, nut and bit of bolt sticking up? I had to get all that attached while pushing the nut up from the bottom with very minimal clearance and while the boat was in the water. I figured this was almost certainly where it would all go wrong and I’d throw the hardened, specialized hardware in the drink. By the grace of something I didn’t and everything bolted together nicely.
All that was left of the installation at that point was making the final connections which consisted of battery cables, helm and display connections and NMEA 2000 network connection. Calibration was a two minute job which required little more than running the steering to each lock. A little more than six hours after starting, the entire system was in place including a new hole in the dash for the Optimus display and modifying the helm cutout. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the system was to install and excited to try it out the next morning.
Electric steering on the water
The next morning after extensive dockside testing, I dropped the lines, backed out of the slip and went for a spin. Initially I limited my testing to low speeds down the fairways of the marina. I was aware that if anything went wrong I’d likely need to fend my boat off my neighbors’ boats, so I went no faster than I thought I could handle. Fortunately I never had to test my fending skills as everything worked perfectly.
If you’re reading this section to find out what went wrong, let me save you some time. The system has worked perfectly the entire time it’s been on the boat. I’ve now logged over 60 hours and 700 nautical miles on the water with the new steering and have no troubles to report. What I can report is steering that feels precise, intuitive and easy to use.
My direct basis for comparison is the older, well-used, Baystar hydraulic steering system I removed from Panbo(at). I think the helm pump was pretty worn which resulted in, what I thought was, sloppy steering. Additionally the turning effort was asymmetrical with turns to port requiring much more effort than starboard. All this added up to a fatiguing experience especially in slow zones where more corrections are required to keep the boat on line. I could have just replaced the helm pump with a new unit and resolved some of my issues with the existing steering but I wouldn’t have enjoyed the many benefits of AES and may well have dealt with the same type of wear down the road with a new helm pump.
Comparing the Baystar steering to the Optimus All-Electric Steering System is stark in favor of AES. With the electronic helm, a tiny correction in the wheel corresponds to a precise movement of the outboard. There’s no sloppiness at all and effort is always the same. Plus, there are adjustments for steering effort and the number of turns lock-to-lock at low speed and high speed. So, I’ve set my steering for four turns lock-to-lock at low speed and six at high speed. I’ve also set the steering effort at 60 percent at low speed and eighty five at high speed. I like a stiffer wheel than the default settings and fortunately with the adjustments available it was very easy to tweak effort to my preferences.
It’s very impressive to see the angle of the motor angle always precisely controlled. When the ignition is on the electric motor in the actuator prevents the motor from moving unless the wheel is turned. I’m yet to have the motor move without my input whether from a following sea, wake hitting the stern or any other force. This control has nearly eliminated any worry of unintended turns, even if I take my hands off the wheel for a moment. When the ignition is off the actuator has a mechanical lock that firmly locks the motor in place. With the hydraulic steering system when I tilted the engine out of the water it would slowly fall to one side or the other before resting on the stops. With AES it never moves.
I mentioned above that the final step of the install was connecting the steering system’s NMEA 2000 connection to the boat’s NMEA 2000 network. This connection allows the steering to read engine data from my outboard — which is possible because I have Yamaha’s NMEA 2000 engine interface already installed on the boat — so that it can adjust steering effort and sensitivity based on speed. Optimus AES also sends rudder information back to the NMEA 2000 information so now all my NMEA 2000 displays can also show steering info.
The Yamaha 150 on Panbo(at) has a 35 amp alternator and the life of an electronics test boat includes lots of demands for power; so I paid close attention to how much power the actuator consumed. My real world testing never saw current consumption above 16 amps and even those levels were fleeting. When the motor isn’t being turned I saw less than 2.5 amps being used when underway and much less when entirely stationary. The electric actuator is designed for a minimum of 150 horsepower, meaning my single engine 150 is the worst case scenario and power consumption isn’t an issue.
Calling out one product as the future of a broad category like marine steering may seem bold or even silly. But if the price can be brought down and reliability is proven, that’s my feeling about Dometic AES. The precise control, simple operation, and easy electronics integration are all compelling — as is the absence of hydraulic fluid hasells — and it turns out Dometic feels the same way.
When I asked Brian Dudra, General Manager of Dometic’s Optimus steering facility in British Columbia, where all-electric steering is headed, his response was clear: “It is the future of outboard steering.” He went on to say they expect a slow transition pointing out that hydraulic steering has replaced many mechanical and cable actuated steering applications but they still offer mechanical steering units today.
My questions focused primarily on two themes: reliability and affordability. In talking about reliability Brian pointed out that a lot of the components installed on my boat were first introduced in 2012 with the Optimus hydraulic-electric steering system. He said, “Going back to Optimus electro-hydraulic, launched in 2012, reliability was the forefront of our focus. We were adamant that from design, testing and validation points of view were absolutely thorough. There are multiple levels of redundancy. All components are chosen for reliability. When we first launched we had over 20,000 hours of testing in the lab plus many boats in the water for over a year. We’re guided by ABYC standards but we far exceed those.”
He then described the engineering and testing that went into bringing AES to the market. “10,000 hours of test time for the actuator in the lab plus extensive field testing. We’re very cognizant of the criticality of the product and it’s beat up extensively before it enters production.” Lastly he added, “We’ve done a lot of material engineering and used material sciences to ensure reliability. We haven’t seen any failures in the field of threads or threaded assemblies. All the manufacturing is done in-house giving us control over the process. We’ve brought in PhD specialists focused purely on the machining of these components. With all this work, we haven’t seen a failure of the production electric actuators in the field.”
The goodness of all this technology isn’t limited to outboards. Dometic already offers an Optimus hydraulic cylinder for inboard boats and it seems a very natural step to adapt an electric actuator for this role as well. Have Another Day has lots of hydraulic lines running from her two helms to the steering gear and I can speak first hand to the time-consuming process of purging the system. Like the outboard application, all-electric steering seems like an improvement in nearly every respect.
The single engine, single helm configuration for my boat carries a list price of $5,200. Dometic says a typical twin engine installation with a Joystick would cost $18,200 at list price. Dometic also explains they expect the all-electric steering components cost about 25% more than the hydraulic components but that premium only applies to the steering actuator since the rest of the components are the same for the electro-hydraulic and all-electric steering. I believe one of the only impediments to greater adoption of Optimus All-Electric Steering is price.
So, I’m hoping Dometic will bring the price down, perhaps through smaller actuators for smaller motors or by eliminating the need for the display on simple installations. Dometic has confirmed they have plans in the works to bring down the cost and that they’re already working on simple installs without displays. One additional lever to help lower the price would be allowing customers to install the system. My experience installing this system showed it to be much simpler than a hydraulic system so I hope that at least for simpler configurations Dometic will find a way to make that possible.
I also hope we might see a few new features in the future. I know that Dometic is already working on a simpler and less expensive auto pilot for installs that don’t have the joystick and its advanced sensor. They’re targeting an attractive list price of about $800 for the simplified autopilot. I’d also love to see an anti-theft PIN when the display is present, it seems a simple step to allow an additional level of security not possible with other steering options.
Despite a few opportunities to improve on the already excellent system, my enthusiasm is hard to contain. I believe the steering on Panbo(at) has been improved in every respect by this installation. I’m thrilled to see it made available and hope long term use of the system will continue the trouble-free and reliable operation I’ve seen so far.