The Future of Hoverboards: How Safety And Government Regulations Will Dictate Their Future

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has implemented the ban of hoverboards in the city’s buses, train stations and on the subways.
New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has implemented the ban of hoverboards in the city’s buses, train stations and on the subways. Creative Commons/Flickr

Scattered across the floors at CES this year were many booths showcasing the hottest gift item from the past holiday season: hoverboards. Everyone with a booth was eager to discuss costs, colors, and how to place an order. That is, until you bring up safety and government regulations.

As of late, hoverboards have been nabbing headlines less for their entertainment value and more for their risk factor, as some self-balancing scooters have been blowing up and catching on fire. Thus far, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has at least 40 recorded hoverboard incidents across 19 states, according to CPSC Spokesperson Patty Davis. In one case in the UK, a charging hoverboard caught on fire “like a bomb” and resulted in serious damage to the property, according to The Independent.

Understanding the safety risks requires comprehending why certain hoverboards are blowing up. The issue boils down to the lithium-ion battery used in most of the gadgets. In more affordable hoverboards, the prices are lower because manufacturers are cutting costs and using cheaper parts, including batteries.

Jay Whitacre, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told WIRED many manufacturers in China are using the cheaper Li-ion batteries instead of the higher-grade LG and Samsung batteries. These low-cost batteries help reduce the MSRP price but it comes with a cost: lower quality pieces means the battery’s separator, which is responsible for keeping anode and cathode apart, is more likely to have impurities and holes that may lead the battery to short circuit. Additionally, says Whitacre, the chargers could be responsible. Poor quality chargers can overcharge the battery, which can cause the battery cell to pop and dry out.

According to Robert Bigler, founder and CEO of Hoverboard Technologies who created a hoverboard featuring a wheel using gyroscopic technology to let users “surf on land,” it is possible to keep Lithium Ion batteries safe.

“It is not difficult at all to keep Lithium Ion batteries safe,” said Bigler, who has a degree in mechanical engineering. “There are some very simple steps to make sure that no battery in the pack will get over-charged or undercharged. It takes a little more electronics and software, though, and many manufacturers, especially those with no domestic corporate entity to protect, simply aren't implementing these simple measures.”

Not surprisingly, spontaneous fires and explosions have led to swift regulations: Amazon pulled hoverboards from its market and is offering refunds to customers who purchased them from its site, major US airlines have banned hoverboards, and the USPS restricted shipping of hoverboards to ground only.

This would, in theory, be bad news for the third-party manufacturers relying on Amazon to sell their product but the few vendors that did speak to us at CES remained optimistic.

“It doesn’t matter; we have eBay and people can directly buy from us through phone messaging orders,” said one vendor. Another booth representative shared that they are selling too many hoverboards “ right now” to worry about regulations “later on .”

Both vendors refused to give their name and declined to comment further.

For more transparent manufacturers, the bad rep means notoriety and potential difficulty in selling products.

“We see all that is happening in the so-called ‘Hoverboard’ world as both good and bad,” said Bigler. “It is good that people in the U.S. are getting an education on the value of Made in the U.S.A., but it is also bad because sweeping prohibitions are being drawn with a very wide brush. When Sony had laptops melting down, for example, there were no sweeping prohibitions put in place for all laptops. We are just keeping the faith that once the actual issues are better understood, the appropriate freedoms will be restored for reputable companies making provably safe products.”

Tony Le, the CEO of Glitek, has a positive outlook of the upcoming regulations. Le explains that his products, which he calls The Glide since they don’t really hover, are so well made that the regulations are a good thing.

“We’re not concerned about the regulations,” said Le, adding that his product are made with high-quality components and allow the user to replace the battery when it dies. “When users buy hoverboards from no-name companies, the batteries do not last long and they’re dangerous. What makes our hoverboard different is that we use the best components — the best in class of Samsung batteries.”

What can consumers do to keep safe? Le says hoverboards can be physically safe if users follow certain protocols.

“You have to use common sense,” said Le. “Any device that you’re gonna go up to ten miles per hour on, you should definitely wear a helmet. When you’re trying out a hoverboard, you should be cautious and you should read the manual before trying it out.”

As for fire safety, CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye issued a statement where he suggested a few measures for those who plan to use hoverboards including: having a working fire extinguisher while charging or using the boards, charging in an open area away from combustible materials, and not using a hoverboard on or near a road.

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