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2023 IBEX Innovation Award Interview with Volvo Penta

Point and Shoot Powerboats with Volvo Penta’s Joystick Driving

Pioneered by Volvo Penta, integrated joystick control systems have been around for just shy of two decades. Though the technology is rather complex, the principle behind joystick steering is pretty simple – the operator points the joystick where they want to go, and then a computer figures out how to modulate the thrusters and main propulsion system to make the boat go in that direction. Joysticks really do make docking easier, especially for new boaters. That said, tenured members of the marine electronics industry would be forgiven for being initially skeptical about the true innovativeness of Volvo Penta’s new Joystick Driving system. However, this latest iteration looks to be a real game changer – fully integrating shift, throttle, and steering control into the palm of your hand.

Volvo Penta Joystick Driving

Boating Gamified

As a member of Gen Z, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the notion that the way to get young people into boating is to gamify it – weening zoomers and millennials off of their smartphones and game consoles by making operating a boat more like playing a videogame. Perhaps that’s why I started to ball up my fists a little when I heard that Volvo Penta’s Joystick was designed to be intuitive for people who have grown up using gamepads. But when I actually got my hands on it, it all made sense to me.

Joysticks were designed to allow people to interact with two- and three-dimensional digital spaces. Over the years, a sort of language has been developed for translating the position of a joystick into the movement of an object on a screen. And once you learn that language, it can be carried over across multiple platforms. That’s why your average 14-year-old can figure out the controls to a new game in a couple of minutes, whereas older folks tend to end up running into walls until they find the off button.

Volvo Penta’s Joystick Driving draws from this digital language. This newest iteration has flattened the learning curve over previous models. Now it’s conceivable that anyone who can win a race in Mario Kart can also dock a 32’ center console.

Beyond the Breakers

This new joystick isn’t just easier to use, it’s also more versatile. Where previous systems were limited to docking, Joystick Driving is designed to be used passed the no-wake buoys. By integrating shift, throttle, and steering control into a single easy-to-use unit, it becomes possible to enjoy the full maneuverability of a vessel with only one hand on the controls.

This innovation provides a totally unique and enjoyable driving experience, but it also paves the way to getting new boaters into the sport. The best way to learn how to drive a boat is to start small and work your way up. Unfortunately, not everyone had the time, means, or inclination to cut their teeth with a skiff and a tiller steer. Volvo Penta’s Joystick Driving lowers the bar for entry. Now, entry-level boaters can safely operate larger vessels without straining their rub rails or the patience of dock attendants.

Q & A with Volvo Penta


What problem was Volvo Penta’s Joystick Driving system designed to solve?

Volvo Penta’s joystick technology has continued to evolve since its introduction in 2006 when it was mainly used for assistance with docking. It has always intended to take on the challenge of making boating more approachable, comfortable, and easy.

It became an integral part of the company’s trademark helm-to-propeller experience in 2012 with the introduction of Joystick Steering. Boat builders and end users alike came to love and rely on the technology that allows for enhanced maneuverability and docking for an overall easy boating experience. So, it was natural that Volvo Penta would develop the solution even further and come out with a revolutionary new level with Joystick Driving, the integration of shift, throttle, and steering into a single joystick control – and a single hand.

Who is the target market for the Joystick Driving system?

Anyone who desires an intuitive, flexible driving experience and appreciates a user-centric approach to boating with features tailored to individual comfort, safety, and efficiency.

The ease of boating means that boaters of all levels can enjoy safe, intuitive docking and driving. The Joystick integrates directly with the propulsion systems’ individually steerable drives and the EVC, making for simple, stress-free maneuvering.

Beginners are particularly well-suited for joystick boat controls. Because it makes maneuverability so simple and gives the driver complete control, users can focus on the luxury experience of boating.

The same ease can also cater to an older generation of boaters who appreciate the ability to remain in the captain’s chair for the entire journey. The joystick can be conveniently installed on the armrest of the driver’s seat to ensure an ergonomic driving posture.

Who is currently using the system? What feedback have you received?

Joystick Driving is available as a direct upgrade to those who already have Joystick Steering onboard and the latest generation of Electronic Vessel Control (EVC 2). OEMs can also install the system as a new feature for vessels that have electric steering, Volvo Penta autopilot, and a Volvo Penta Glass Cockpit display of any size.

The feedback has been very positive from the media, dealers, and customers. Some recent media comments are below:

• “I love the idea of this. Integrating everything into a single control is the best thing to happen to helms since the invention of the steering wheel.” –Craig Ritchie (International Boat Industry)
• “The new “Driving” function of the Volvo Penta joystick is intuitive, works with astonishing ease, allows sensitive and precise control of yachts, and is great fun at the same time! In combination with the other integrated functions of the joystick control, this is a real added value on board a modern yacht.” –Christian Schneider (Motorboat Magazine)
• “I’ve been the beneficiary of joystick docking on various IPS-powered boats over the years and I was of the mindset that it really couldn’t get much better. Therein lies the genius of Volvo Penta in creating a culture of innovation where-in good is never good enough.” Dan Harding (Power and Motoryacht)

How does the Joystick system change the learning curve for new boaters?

Joystick driving allows the operator to simply push the joystick forward to engage the gear, speed up or slow down, and release it to remain at a certain speed. The acceleration will be proportional to the angle of the joystick. When the joystick is pulled back, the throttle reduces, and the boat will stop. To further enhance the driving experience, electronic gear shifting enables smooth acceleration and deceleration.

When the joystick driving function is activated, key driver information – the requested gear, speed, and heading – is automatically displayed in the Volvo Penta Glass Cockpit helm display. Boaters can tailor the joystick driving view to show the information they need for full control of the situation.

It also helps them feel safer. If the joystick is released in reverse, it will automatically default to a neutral position for safety. Joystick driving also makes course corrections with the autopilot by turning a couple of degrees with a twist of the wrist.

The Joystick Driving system also helps with docking, one of the most stressful situations for new boaters. Precision docking and close-quarter maneuvering are transformed into a simple process. Instead of performing complicated shift, throttle, and steering wheel combinations, you just move the joystick in the desired direction and the boat responds accordingly.

Why has no one successfully integrated shift, throttle, and steering into a single joystick?

While we can’t speak for other marine industry companies, we will say that at Volvo Penta, we have a long history of being at the forefront of technology, with more than 100 years of engineering expertise, and using that innovation to create state-of-the-art marine applications and groundbreaking systems that push the possibilities at sea – always with people and planet in mind.

What obstacles arose during the R&D process? How were they overcome?

Volvo Penta first launched the first joystick in 2006 in conjunction with IPS and DuoProp. The system was meant for docking and to aid boaters to get into the dock and it marked the beginning of giving boaters a high level of control. We introduced joystick steering in 2012 and then joystick docking for single diesel sterndrive applications in Sept. 2022, so working on the technology for some time made the process of upgrading our joystick technology even further with joystick driving very intuitive.

What impact do you see the Joystick Driving system having on the boating industry?

It provides unique benefits to boat builders, dealers, and customers alike – revolutionizing the driving experience by combining simplicity, the thrill of control, and ultimate flexibility. It’s the way boaters were meant to drive.

Joystick Driving represents a fundamental shift in the development of user-centered helm designs. This launch will help pave the way for a new era of helm stations tailored to individual comfort, efficiency, and safety.

What plans are in place for the future of joystick systems?

While we can’t make any formal announcements at this time, we can say that we are working on joystick solutions that are even more intuitive and automated, forever focused on the goal of next-level boating. We aim to create pioneering helm stations that cater to the evolving, user-focused preferences of the marine industry.

The IBEX Innovation Awards showcase outstanding marine product development to the recreational boating industry and beyond. The program, managed by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and judged by Boating Writers International (BWI), is one of the marine industry’s most prestigious honors recognizing manufacturers and suppliers who bring new, innovative products to market.

Volvo Penta

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At Volvo Penta, our state-of-the-art marine applications are created with people and planet front of mind. Always striving for total control, comfort, and safety – we deliver marine propulsion solutions, drivelines, user interfaces and support to our customers across the globe.

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