clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The long-awaited hoverboard safety crackdown has finally arrived

They don't fly, but that hasn't stopped their endless rise.
They don't fly, but that hasn't stopped their endless rise.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The federal government is blocking the sale of hoverboards in the US until the self-balancing scooters can be proven to meet newly created safety standards.

Anyone who "imports, manufactures, delivers, or sells" hoverboards that don't meet the new standards could be sued or charged with a crime, according to a letter the US Consumer Product Safety Commission sent to the hoverboard industry Thursday.

The letter will probably lead to recalls of hoverboards that have already been sold as well. The safety standards, from UL, a company that certifies the safety of consumer products, have only existed for about two weeks, so there are no hoverboards currently on the market that meet them.

The commission's letter is the culmination of the rise and fall of one of 2015's hottest toys — one that literally began catching on fire. Major airlines banned hoverboards from their aircraft. Amazon in the UK told customers who bought hoverboards before Christmas 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.

Hoverboards are now going to have to prove they're safe

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.

The scooters aren't particularly practical: their top speed is around 6 miles per hour, not too much faster than a brisk walk.

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.

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 in March. Justin Bieber wheeled around on a hoverboard a few weeks later. Jamie Foxx rode 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.

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 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 Consumer Product Safety Commission eventually investigated 52 fires in 24 states. 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 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.

The CSPC wasn't able to get any boards to catch on fire during the testing process. But they said they suspected the fires could have been prevented if board manufacturers had to meet safety standards.

Hoverboard factories in China sprang up overnight

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 it memeufacturing. 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.

The viral internet hasn't just outpaced the ability for individual brands to get a foothold in the market — it moved too fast for regulators, too. UL didn't develop safety standards for hoverboards until recently, meaning there was no independently certified way to know the products were safe.

The safety warnings before Christmas didn't stop a lot of kids from unwrapping hoverboards. But the hoverboard crackdown from airlines and Amazon led to a manufacturing dropoff in China, Quartz reported in December.

Now hoverboard manufacturers are going to have to be able to prove their products are safe, fast, or risk losing access to the American market. Hoverboards that don't meet standards will be seized when they get to the US, the CPSC said in its letter.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.