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This Holiday's Hottest Gadget Is Going Up in Flames

There’s a huge concern around spontaneous combustion.

Screenshot: "Saturday Night Live"/YouTube

In celebration of “Back to the Future Day” earlier this year, debates exploded across the Internet over what the cult classic movies got right and wrong about the world of 2015. Although not exactly as predicted, the most exciting innovation from that movie — Marty McFly’s hoverboard — has taken on a new life.

While they can’t exactly fly, ground-trekking versions of “personalized motor transporters” — nicknamed hoverboards — hit the shelves this year, and are among the hottest gift items for teens and young adults as the holidays loom.

But, just as these self-balancing scooters come into rapid popularity, they’re quickly falling out of favor. Some models are literally going up in flames, and there’s a huge concern around spontaneous combustion.

This is a big disruption story. People find the technology cool and exciting, and are buying, yet retailers, airlines and metropolitan areas are trying to figure out how to police them.

Major airlines, including Delta and JetBlue, banned them from air carriers, while Amazon has pulled has pulled 97 percent of hoverboards from its “online shelves” out of an abundance of caution. Some are citing the lithium batteries used as the culprit for spontaneous combustion.

And the damages are mounting. There are reports of fires igniting inside people’s homes while units are charging. And here’s a video example of one going up in smoke outside of someone’s home in the U.K.

In addition to airlines and retailers taking a protective stance on this, cities and municipalities have created their own policies, as well. New York and the U.K. have already introduced local statutes making hoverboards illegal on walkways and pavement, and in some places they’re banned unless used on private land.

This is a big disruption story. People find the technology cool and exciting and are buying, yet retailers, airlines and metropolitan areas are trying to figure out how to police them. Especially since they aren’t cars or scooters and don’t require registration.

So hoverboard makers are in crisis. And if recent reports can help, the combustion issue should be a glaring red-light indicator for how they should proceed.

For starters, their urgent response — with the proposed fix for the combustion issue — is required if they hope to keep selling models and bolster consumer confidence.

Why are hoverboards so cool?

There’s a mix of stardom and controversy surrounding hoverboards. They’re just like a Segway without a handlebar, but they’ve been made cool by celebrity endorsements from Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner, Chris Brown and other contemporary artists. Wiz Khalifa was arrested after refusing to fork over his wheels at LAX during a security check. And Mark Cuban recently threatened to sue all “knockoff” hoverboard makers, claiming that he and a business partner own the patented technology.

They range from $200 to upward of $1,500 and the self-balancing, motorized, two-wheel scooter is powered by a lithium battery and requires an inward-leaning stance to operate. Some have longer battery life than others. For example, the higher-ended Swagway can ride up to 10 MPH, 20 miles per charge, and take 1-2 hours to charge.

While the lower-priced models are typically made in China, some are manufactured in the U.K. and even in the U.S. Skagway has gained the most popularity, along with the Hovertrax and IO Hawk, which have the most expensive models but boast higher quality.

Hoverboards were ranked as Amazon’s No. 3-rated seller in Outdoor and Sports, and USA Today called them the “hottest, hardest-to-get item of the season.” Time magazine also named it as the coolest piece of tech of 2015 at CES. And this holiday season, models have already sold out in Walmart, while Target has had to enlist a preorder process. Some Amazon and eBay models are still available, but shipping may take a while.

Who’s trying to regulate them?

So hoverboards are in demand, and they have won over peoples’ wallets. It’s also worth noting that the mighty Steve Jobs predicted that “cities would be redesigned” based on the Segway, when it launched.

Yet cities and local authorities don’t know how to handle hoverboards, and some are advising to hold off on purchasing them until after it’s clear how they’ll be locally regulated.

Right now, these devices aren’t even universally classified: In the U.K., they’re considered vehicles, while here in the U.S., they’re not. But they’re very similar to scooters, bikes and skateboards — which are all legal. In D.C., the hoverboard’s cousin, the Segway, is subject to D.C. bicycle laws.

New York’s method for handling hoverboards — along with outright bans from retailers and airlines — should be an indicator of how other populated places might respond. The city recently banned hoverboards from city streets and walkways. If caught, there’s no fine for the first offense, and a $50 fine for the second offense.

The reasoning: They’re too dangerous to other pedestrians. New York’s DMV cannot provide registration for them, since they’re not classified as vehicles, and there’s also a big gray area around who’s liable if accidents happen on public streets using a personal hoverboard.

Other risks have become apparent: Even before the spontaneous combustion issues cropped up, many were citing the risk of falling and crashing. Head injuries and potential injury to those standing nearby also give rise to caution.

Some (unasked-for) advice for hoverboard makers

The inventors and manufacturers of these disruptive new transportation technologies can no longer sit back while regulators, resellers and even airlines threaten their very existence. They must engage thoughtfully and quickly with consumers, the media, regulators at all levels and even politicians.

The inventors and manufacturers of these disruptive new transportation technologies must engage thoughtfully and quickly with consumers, the media, regulators at all levels and even politicians.

Hoverboards aren’t alone in the oncoming local regulatory battle. They’re a member of a growing class of personal transport technologies. Electric skateboards, monopods (balancing unicycles) and other technologies are creating a new class of moving vehicles. The major questions to answer include: Are they vehicles or not? And who carries liability for accidents? (Insurance carriers haven’t been vocal on them yet.)

Right now, the spontaneous combustion issue is public crisis No. 1. A fix is needed to reassure customers that they’re buying a sound product that won’t burn down their homes.

Makers may also be wise to focus on how hoverboards fit into existing pedestrian laws and local statutes. In terms of safety issues, perhaps selling them with some innovative helmet gear and pads makes sense. Or installing camera technologies into the products so that users can record accidents as they happen.

With growing questions about quality control and the potential danger of the onboard batteries, industry leaders must also start defining industry best practices to separate good actors from those less scrupulous ones. With airlines and resellers now banning the products without full reviews of the facts, leading hoverboard manufacturers must act quickly to restore trust in the safety of their products.

Society’s response to technologies can often drive innovation around a product. If hoverboard makers aim to have their products adopted at a wider scale, they should note the reasons why they’re being banned or outlawed, and innovate their way out of upcoming regulatory issues.

Hoverboard makers should be predicting these challenges and navigating in real time. To do so would make Marty McFly proud.

Krista Alestock, vice president of Vrge Strategies, has worked for more than a decade to set strategy and execute thought-leadership campaigns for publicly traded companies, nonprofits, think tanks and associations. At Vrge, she counsels clients on forward-thinking initiatives to evolve their brands and amplify their voice in public discourse. Reach her @krista_alestock.

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