Hoverboards have become nothing more than an eye-catching trend that turned out to be ridiculously hazardous, due to the incidents of the board’s lithium ion battery catching fire. In response, retailers such as Amazon and Walmart have discontinued selling the toy, and legislation has begun to ban them entirely, with California requiring riders to be 16 or older and public systems like the MTA already prohibiting their use. The absence of safety in hoverboard products could be related to the lack of compliance and regulation of the product, as no hoverboard sold in the United States has UL certification.
The concept of a “hoverboard” might seem to be something long carried within the futuristic vision of our world, it is actually a recent idea in popular culture. In the 1987 sequel to Back to the Future, when hero Marty McFly travels to the then-future year of 2015, over the backdrop of flying cars and a hyper-technological city, he rides a hoverboard. The prop used was essentially a plastic skateboard without wheels that was elevated above the ground. While the writers of the film were inspired by the hovercraft technology futurism of the mid-Twentieth Century, they personally invented the concept of the hoverboard. A hoax perpetrated by the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, who grew tired of people asking him how the hoverboard sequence was done, in the 1990s implying that there was an actual hoverboard used in the film and not a prop later solidified this concept into our culture.
Today’s hoverboards are manufactured by a variety of American and Chinese companies, and were originated in 2013 by Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology Co, in what the Chinese company called a “self-balancing scooter”. As implied by this name, they do not actually levitate but stand on two wheels. Not too soon after this first model came out, other Chinese companies made use of the design to manufacture their own products and influenced American companies, all of which created their devices under the name “hoverboard”. Oriented by the balance of the operator, these hoverboards are fueled by a rechargeable battery-powered motor, and the entire device is easy enough to carry when it is not in use.
However, the batteries are where the main problem lies in these devices. Clearly, hoverboards are very popular, and they have easily attracted the public’s attention in the couple of years that they have been available. Over the 2015 holiday, they even topped many people’s wish lists. Despite this, they are not safe, and many of the batteries have caught on fire, leading to millions of dollars in property damage. If you search for fire damage by hoverboards, you will find a variety of stories from local news, such as this one from Nashville, Tennessee involving a hoverboard destroying a $1 million home.
While some places falsely claim that some manufacturers make safe hoverboards, according to UL Standards, no single hoverboard in the United States is safe to operate. These batteries are untested and cheaply made in China so that the overall product can be sold to the consumer at an affordable price. With the cheaper battery, there is potential for flaws in different parts of the electrical circuit, such as a damaged anode and cathode separator. Small defects like these can lead to the shorting of the battery, which can cause it to catch on fire. Additional fires have been caused by defects in the chargers of the lithium ion battery packs, which might not feature a cut off mechanism stalling the influx of electric current into the hoverboard. This overcharging has also caused batteries to catch ablaze, and nightly hoverboard recharge sessions been the key contributor of hoverboard-related home damages.
Self-balancing scooters have been given a lot of publicity due to these hazards that they pose to consumers, but they are not the only type of hoverboard available. Currently in development, there are several kinds of actual levitating hoverboards. Lexus and Hendo have created products that are elevated above the ground through the power of an electromagnetic field. The biggest drawback of these two models is that they require a special surface to ride on. Because of this, they can’t travel over water, unlike the original one that many of us have seen in 2015 Hill Valley.
However, some hoverboards are not encumbered by the necessity of a special surface that keeps them afloat. Canadian company OMNI Hoverboards Inc. designs fan-powered hoverboards that have a remarkably futuristic look. Their mark-1 prototype successfully travelled a distance of 279.9 meters (905 feet and 2 inches) achieving the current Guinness World Records title for the longest distance traveled by hoverboard.
In addition, ArcaSpace has designed a fully functional hoverboard, called the ArcaBoard, that became available for consumers on April 15, 2016. This model contains an assemblage of 36 fans set throughout its body that give it liftoff, and it can remain about a foot or so above water.
However, it does not seem that we will see these hoverboards cruising above city streets anytime soon, but for those who are interested, the ArcaBoard is currently priced at $14,900. For the people who can’t afford that and still want to possess some of the thrill that comes with riding a hoverboard, self-balancing scooters might be the best option. The issue of these catching fire is very much an issue with lack of compliance, and the solution is thorough testing of the materials. UL is currently accepting submittals of self-balancing scooters for testing and certification, but none have been officially certified to date. ASTM International has also begun to consider hoverboard safety.
For anyone currently possessing hoverboards, it is recommended that they stop using them immediately. In addition, past purchasers can make use of this guide for consumers to see which stores will refund their faulty products.