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Electric boat startup Arc wants to make a big splash

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Starting with this $300,000 craft

Images: Arc

Electricity and water don’t mix — well, actually, they mix really well, which can be problematic for humans. So the thought of an electric boat may seem risky. A new California startup called Arc is going to try to shred that perception, starting with a limited edition 24-foot watersports boat that will cost around $300,000.

That’s an incredible amount of money. But Arc — which is coming out of stealth mode today, boasts a handful of SpaceX expats, and is backed by Silicon Valley powerhouse firm Andreessen Horowitz — plans to work its way down from that price point once it’s producing and selling boats, just like Tesla once did for electric passenger cars with the Roadster, followed by the Model S and X, and then the Model 3 and Y.

Electric boats have far fewer moving parts, meaning that they should deal a big blow to maintenance costs, one of the biggest headaches of owning a boat. What’s more, electricity can be much cheaper than marina fuel prices, and trickle charging a boat at home makes far more sense than doing it with a car. While Arc’s first boat may not reach total parity with a gas-powered boat, that’s the goal, and Arc CEO Mitch Lee thinks it’s readily attainable.

“We are starting up-market, we are working our way down as quickly as we can — we are using their playbook almost verbatim,” Lee tells The Verge in an interview. In other words, the limited sales of the $300,000 Arc One boat will help finance the R&D required to make a more affordable version of that Arc, one that could sell “in the thousands,” Lee says.

Running Tesla’s playbook while also trying to disrupt the boating world with electric propulsion technology makes it easy to collar Arc with the “Tesla for boats” moniker. Arc wouldn’t be the first, and it won’t be the last, but Lee says he’d rather leave that decision up to the media and the public.

“From a branding person, why I hesitate is everyone is going to call themselves the ‘Tesla for boats.’ It’s like, everyone aspires to that,” he says. “What matters is how well are you executing against that playbook.”

Arc’s first boat is simple, but something of a marvel — at least on paper. (Lee says Arc has one prototype already.) The boat will have a 200kWh, 800-volt battery pack — roughly double the capacity and voltage of Tesla’s current top-tier pack — and an electric motor with at least 475 horsepower, Lee says. It will have a top speed of around 40 miles per hour and run for a total of around four hours, which Lee says should cover a day’s worth of boating.

Better yet, Lee says, the boat will throw a wake behind it, meaning it will be fun to use for wake sports like waterskiing. This is rare in the nascent electric boat market, Lee says, because it takes a lot of energy to move through water, so other companies have looked to reduce the forces that create a wake. Some are using a hydrofoil to reduce drag, basically eliminating the wake altogether.

This is a big reason why the battery pack will be so energy-dense. “When you’re moving through water, power draw is cubic to your speed,” Lee says. “If you want a boat that can go 40 miles an hour, you need a very large battery to be able to handle that.” All that extra energy on tap will help the boat “plane” at higher speeds, too, which is when it essentially skims across the water, reducing drag.

“Boats are actually really good at floating — that sounds silly but like it’s not hard to make a boat that could carry a huge load,” Lee says. “The hard part is if you want to plane, or you want to move quickly. [That creates] this exponential power draw, because you’re moving through something much more viscous than air.”

Another key part of Arc’s design is that it’s building aluminum hulls. Much like when Ford adopted aluminum for its pickup trucks half a decade ago, Arc is bucking convention here. Most boat hulls in this class are made out of carbon fiber or some other type of composite material. Lee says aluminum will be less labor intensive, less expensive, while still being light enough that Arc can commit most of the weight to the battery pack.

While the pack will be big, it will be spread across the bottom of the boat and integrated into the structure of the hull — something that will inevitably draw more comparisons to Tesla, which is working on structural battery packs for its future vehicles. Also like Tesla, Lee says Arc is going for a high degree of vertical integration. In addition to the hull, the startup is designing its own enclosures for the battery packs, as well as the cooling system. It’s developing the software, too, which it plans to tweak and improve via over-the-air updates. Arc is sourcing the modules and cells that make up the pack, and the electric motor (Lee declined to name the suppliers).

Arc is also pulling in some outside consultants to help with the 800-volt technology since that’s something that is still rare even in the world of high-performance electric vehicles. (Porsche has an 800-volt pack in the Taycan, and GM is working on 800-volt battery packs for its Ultium-powered EVs.) Again, Lee cautions, that doesn’t mean there’s reason to be worried. There’s precedence for high-voltage electrical systems on boats, though they often power the so-called “hotel loads” — basically all the creature comforts not related to propulsion.

“We are novel in that this is going to be our powertrain — we’re using these high voltage batteries for this particular usage,” he says. “Our entire team is dedicated to making sure that we are doing this intelligently and safely. So there are some extra closeouts that we’re doing and the testing process we’re using is ridiculously rigorous, to make sure that we’re bringing this system online safely.”

Ultimately, Lee believes the massive theoretical upside of an electric boat will transcend any wariness about what’s powering it. He’s so bullish on the idea that he says he hopes to one day get Arc’s boats to require zero maintenance. (Sound familiar?)

“Boating is amazing. Boat ownership is awful, and we want to solve all the awful parts about boat ownership, and expand the boating market,” he says. “If we make a boat that, yes, is premium to the market, but it lowers the headache of boat ownership and amplifies the magic of being out on the water... I think that’s a big selling point for us. And if you kind of pair that with all the macro trends of everything going electric, all of that I think sets us up for the right product, the right market fit, the right time.”