Chances are someone you know unwrapped a hoverboard on Christmas morning. The self-balancing skateboards were among the most popular toys of 2015 — and the most controversial.
That’s because they’ve demonstrated an alarming propensity to catch on fire. The federal government is investigating them. Major airlines have banned them. Amazon in the UK told customers who bought hoverboards that, actually, they should probably throw them away.
Hoverboards have a very weird, very 2015 backstory. They’re the plastic-and-battery equivalent of a viral Instagram joke. The story of the hoverboard is the story of how a product itself can go viral, and the corners that can get cut along the way.
These are not the hoverboards promised in Back to the Future II
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the hoverboard phenomenon so far, the most important thing to know is this: hoverboards do not actually hover.
The idea of a personal transportation device that allows you to float a few inches off the ground is still a mostly futuristic idea. Instead, what everyone is calling “hoverboards” are technically self-balancing electric scooters — basically, it’s a much cooler name for a hands-free Segway.
Hoverboards run on battery power. You direct them by leaning forward or back, or by putting your weight on one foot to turn. They’re usually stabilized by gyroscopes that keep you upright.
This video gives a good idea of how self-balancing scooters work:
The scooters aren’t particularly practical: their top speed is around 6 miles per hour, not too much faster than a brisk walk. But as many Vines and Instagram videos can attest, they are a lot more fun than walking.
Still: they do not hover, and yet although the scooters are made by multiple manufacturers and go by a variety of brand names — the IO Hawk, the PhunkeeDuck, the Swagway — their generic noun is universally “hoverboards.”
It’s surprisingly hard to say where the nickname came from. One of the earliest self-balancing scooters, which started as a Kickstarter project in 2013, was called the Hovertrax; the name might have come from there.
But it’s also possible that 2015 was simply fated to be the Year of the Hoverboard. Hoverboards were making news this year before self-balancing scooters were, inspired by all of us reaching the year Marty McFly traveled to in Back to the Future Part II and finding it depressingly devoid of actual hoverboards. This year saw attempts at manufacturing real hoverboards that actually hover — Lexus made one that only works in a special park in Spain; a project called the Hendo Hoverboard raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter.
The first recorded use of “hoverboard” to refer to the hands-free scooters seems to come from the Luxury Technology Show, where visitors reference Back to the Future but don’t directly call them hoverboards (although the video title does):
Calling it a hoverboard seems to have originated on YouTube. Casey Neistat, a filmmaker who posts vlogs on YouTube and has more than 2 million subscribers, was talked into buying a self-balancing scooter on Amazon in early June and quickly started referring to it as a hoverboard.
In July, TmarTn, a YouTube personality, bought one and described it in a video viewed more than 6 million times as a “Hoverboard, Segway-type thing”:
Hoverboards are catching on fire, literally
Hoverboard manufacturers were incredibly successful at getting their product into the hands of celebrities, and the boards rolled their way into the national consciousness via Instagram, YouTube, and Vine.
Kendall Jenner glided around on one gracefully (until she fell off) on Instagram back inMarch. Justin Bieber wheeled around on a hoverboard a few weeks later. Jamie Foxxrode a hoverboard onto the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in May. Rapper Wiz Khalifa was tackled and handcuffed at Los Angeles International Airport in August because he wouldn’t stop riding a hoverboard. Even Mike Tyson got in the mix.
Hoverboards had gone viral, just in time for the holidays:
But then, a few weeks before Christmas, they started going viral for another reason: they were catching on fire. The hoverboards’ batteries were exploding, leading to fires while hoverboards were plugged in and charging, being ridden, or simply sitting on the floor at a shopping mall:
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has recorded at least 22 hoverboard fires in 17 states so far. In one case, a 13-year-old boy was riding his hoverboard inside when it started to smoke; after he took it outside, it burst into flames and the boy had to use a fire extinguisher to put it out.
The safety commission is testing hoverboards at its lab in Rockville, Maryland, spokeswoman Patty Davis said in mid-December.
The fires caused a quick hoverboard backlash. In the week leading up to Christmas, Amazon and Overstock stopped selling most hoverboards; the US Postal Service refused to ship them by air mail; and at least six airlines, including all the major carriers, said they weren’t allowed on board.
The fires are the result of the lithium ion batteries that power the hoverboards. When a lithium ion battery is punctured, it explodes, a battery expert told Wired. Batteries can also explode if they short-circuit or overheat.
Lithium ion batteries aren’t inherently dangerous. They’re in everything — powering smartphones and laptops, cars and airplanes. But the way hoverboards rose from nowhere to everywhere, with few dominant or well-known manufacturers making a type of gadget that didn’t exist a few years ago, has created particular safety headaches.
Hoverboard factories in China sprang up overnight
Usually, the must-have Christmas toy comes from one brand. There’s a big difference between a Tickle Me Elmo and a knockoff. Even the Razor scooter, the last scooter to become a big holiday toy success, was indelibly associated with a specific brand.
With hoverboards, it’s the general idea, not a specific manufacturer, that’s become popular.
The original two-wheeled, hands-free, self-balancing scooter was (probably — it’s disputed) the Hovertrax, which got its start as a Kickstarter in 2013. Inventor Shane Chen, whose company Inventist has come up with other wacky, futuristic ideas for moving people around — easy-to-ride unicycles, something billed as “a cross between a skateboard and in-line skates” — promised the device would be the “future of powerful and portable transportation.”
Chen more than met his $40,000 Kickstarter goal, and the first Hovertrax were shipped to the US in December 2014. But before they arrived, other hoverboards were being promoted in the US, including the Chic Smart S1. Chen, who patented his design, is now in a patent fight with IO Hawk, the leading American distributor of hoverboards, who buys from manufacturers like Chic.
The shifting manufacturing market for hoverboards has a direct bearing on their safety problems. That’s partly because, as Wired reported this summer, underneath different labels and packaging, hoverboards are pretty similar.
Hoverboards almost universally come from Chinese manufacturers who can quickly replicate each other’s designs. And not just one or two factories, but thousands of them, all of which got into the hoverboard business more or less overnight. Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein wrote in a fantastic exploration of the hoverboard supply chain:
The hoverboard industry that has unfurled in the concrete of Bao An and other similar districts is on-demand IRL content production, a super-flexible churn that hands us the playthings of social-media-driven seasonal diversion. It is the funhouse mirror reflection of the viral internet, the metal-and-cement consequence of our equally flexible commercial hype machine… Call itmemeufacturing. It starts when a (typically) Western company, eager to cash in on a product made popular by the social internet, contracts a Chinese factory to make it. From here, the idea spreads throughout the elaborate social networks of Chinese electronics manufacturing until the item in question is being produced by hundreds and hundreds of competitors, who subcontract and sell components to each other, even as they all make the same thing.
Social media virality makes everything move faster — a local news story goes national or international within a few hours; a hoverboard goes from a Justin Bieber Instagram to a neighborhood dad in a matter of weeks or months. And the same process happens with products that happens with gossip or news: sometimes, corners are cut.
All hoverboards are basically the same — and that’s making the safety problems hard to solve
If you want to understand how weird the hoverboard industry is, look at the pricing, which is all over the place: an IO Hawk goes for nearly $1,800; a PhunkeeDuck is $1,500; a Swagway is $500, and you can get a no-name hoverboard on Chinese retailer Alibaba for $300.
It would be one thing if the IO Hawk or PhunkeeDuck came with additional bells and whistles. But the truth is that all hoverboards are fundamentally similar. This isn’t necessarily the difference between a brand name and a knockoff; none of these brands existed before the hoverboard craze started.
Nor are brands necessarily intentionally shirking safety standards, although some may be using knockoff batteries that are more prone to problems. There are no standards yet to meet.
The viral internet hasn’t just outpaced the ability for individual brands to get a foothold in the market — it’s moving too fast for regulators, too, as CNET reported:
You might not be able to find a hoverboard that’s been tested in its entirety by a reputable independent firm like Underwriters Laboratories (UL) even if you looked hard. Swagway, one of the more popular brands, claims its entire hoverboard is UL-certified because it has a UL-certified battery and a UL-certified charger inside, but that’s not accurate.
The safety warnings before Christmas didn’t stop a lot of kids from unwrapping hoverboards. But the hoverboard crackdown has already led to a manufacturing dropoff in China, Quartz reported. It’s possible a toy so hot that it literally bursts into flames won’t maintain its viral dominance much longer.