Dallas-area company aims to build self-driving electric boats

Automakers like Tesla have introduced semi-autonomous electric vehicles to the mainstream, and now a local company wants to do the same for boating.

Vine-based Alloy wants to build an electric boat that can avoid other boats, dock, and even move from place to place under ideal conditions. The company has developed a software prototype and hopes to bring a product to market in 2024.

“The focus for us is smarter, safer boats,” said CEO Brandon Cotter, an entrepreneur who worked on 11 other startups before co-founding Alloy.

Cotter grew up boating, and the idea for Alloy came to him while he and his significant other were sitting in the back of a boat. They had read about the shift to electric and self-driving cars, and Cotter realized it was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of the same trend in the marine industry.

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He founded the company with software engineer Powell Kinney and former MasterCraft Boats CEO John Dorton. The founders have assembled a team of 10 people that spans the globe from Dallas to Lille, France.

Alloy is currently closing a $2.5 million fundraising round from Texas-based angel investors. The company says it aims to raise $10 million this year.

Like Tesla, Alloy puts software at the center of its design process, aiming to reinvent the experience of driving a boat. The company started by building a software prototype, which a demo video shows driving a boat while navigating around another boat.

“This boat is controllable from an iPad,” Cotter said.

The level of autonomy of the final product will vary depending on the water conditions. On a clear day with few other boats on the water, the boat will be able to drive from place to place. On a windy day with more obstacles, the software may be limited to keeping the driver up to date with what is happening around the boat.

The software is currently running on a Nautical boat, but Cotter hopes Alloy will be able to build its own prototype boat by the end of the year. The startup is partnering with another company to build the electric motor and batteries.

The biggest challenge for electric boats is energy storage, said John-Michael Donahue, vice president of North American public affairs at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Batteries are much less energy dense than gasoline, and pushing a boat through water takes more energy than propelling a car down the road.

Compared to cars, “it’s going to be a little more difficult, it’s going to take a little longer for the entire recreational boat fleet to go electrified,” Donahue said.

Alloy’s boats will be as light as possible to make them more energy efficient, Cotter said. They will also cater to people who take their boats out during the day and bring them back to dock at night to recharge them.

Although there is no official count, electric vessels likely represent less than 1% of the 12 million registered boats in the United States, Donahue said.

But selling even 10,000 to 20,000 boats would introduce a lot of people to electric boating, Cotter said.

“Our mission is to get one million new people safely on the water over the next 10 years,” he said.

Alloy has retrofitted a Nautical vessel with self-driving technology that allows it to be controlled remotely with Alloy’s software.(Mike Reyher)

Earnest A. Martinez