Hoverboards: Everything you need to know

Hoverboard

Welcome to our introduction to hoverboards. This is the Swagway X1, one of the most popular models in late 2015.

When you say “hoverboard”, the natural connection most people make is to what was seen in the movie Back to the Future 2. Basically, a skateboard that is suspended continually above the ground using air propulsion, magnets, or some other mysterious unexplained power (1.21 gigawatts?!)

The bad news is, we’re nowhere near that level of technology yet.

The good news is, we’re in the nascent stages that are very likely to lead to that level of technology in our lifetime.

So What Is A “Hoverboard” In 2015/2016?

The things being marketed and sold as “hoverboards” right now are more like a very small, hands-free Segway board or a self-balancing scooter. They have wheels; they don’t actually hover over the ground. The name comes more from the sensation of hovering that the rider gets than any semblance of them actually hovering.

These hoverboards operate on the same basic principle as a Segway: it’s a gyroscopic system that automatically constantly self-corrects to maintain its position and keep the rider balanced. Unlike the traditional Segway, however, they don’t require the use of handles. You keep your personal balance thanks to a set of sensors located under each foot. At least ideally, anyway; these devices still take some practice and skill to ride without crashing or falling off.

Don’t be fooled: they’re heavy, but still fast

The boards are also not light, at least not as of late 2015 / early 2016. They tend to weigh in the neighborhood of 20 pounds, and can currently achieve top speeds up to 12 miles per hour. While they aren’t very likely to cause fatalities, they do have the potential for serious injury and property damage. They also present something of a logistical issue if you want to take them to work or out shopping, since you’ll likely have to get off once you’re inside.

Before we get into the juicy stuff, you can compare prices and sign up for deal alerts on hoverboards using PricePlow:

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I’ve Heard Something About Hoverboard Fires

Fires have indeed been a major issue in the early going. These boards first appeared in late 2014 almost out of nowhere, being quickly “knocked off” by a couple of Chinese manufacturers. Even more manufacturers quickly jumped on board in 2015 once celebrities started filming themselves with them and it became obvious there was a market for these things.

There’s been such a rush to market, however, that many of these boards are clearly not being safety-tested properly before they’re sold. In December of 2015 there were widespread news reports that hoverboards were igniting on fire while being used and even exploding, citing at least 10 incidents across the United States.[1]

Hoverboard Fire

As of late 2015, fires have been a big issue. Here, you can see a board on fire in a mall, with a woman about to put it out.

The main issue seems to be the lithium-ion batteries used to power the devices, which can combust if they short-circuit. This has happened in even high-quality devices like Apple products or Dell Laptops (4 million batteries recalled in 2006[2]), but the fires are extremely rare in personal electronics anymore. The hoverboard market, however, is behaving a bit differently – especially in the race to make it to market for the 2015 Christmas season.

The boards that have been rushed to market are possibly using cheaper batteries that are more prone to have defects, and are not being properly configured/wired or spec’d out to boot. When you combine that with the stress of having to continually support a person’s weight and also a likely impact of repeated collisions (no matter how minor they may be), you’ve got a recipe for fires.[3]

There’s no import prohibitions on how these boards can be manufactured as of yet, so regulation thus far has been limited to stores voluntarily pulling them after reports of fires. Amazon has pulled some of the models that were involved in fires, but a quick search of their site shows many models still for sale that are in a suspiciously low price range and made by China-based manufacturers whose procedures and materials can’t really be verified before purchase.

Given the recent scares and risks, we expect regulation to be right around the corner. Until then, it’s up to us to figure out what’s safe and what’s not – not always an easy task in the world of fake reviews.[4]

So Which Ones Are Safe / Dangerous?

At the moment, it’s very difficult to tell. We know that Amazon initially singled out Swagway boards for removal from their stores, but they also removed a variety of other brands. News reports for the most part are not naming specific brands that have caught fire.[5]

Swagway quickly returned to the Amazon marketplace though (see our price comparisons above or below), but it’s unclear if that was added by Amazon after a safety check, or if a third-party marketplace store added them.

As of Christmas, 2015, the following brands are currently on Amazon:

Hoverboards

This Jetson is not only a turbo, it also has bluetooth speakers!

  • Swagway
  • Razor
  • Hover X
  • Powerboard
  • Jetson (December 2015 Update: Jetson is currently under question due to poor UL-compliance)

We don’t mean to knock all manufacturers in China as corner-cutting opportunists ready to burn your house down. Undoubtedly there are some companies over there genuinely attempting to produce a quality self-balancing scooter. But the general lack of regulation should make you leery of anything not from a major brand name that is manufactured there, especially if it is inexpensive (for hoverboards, that means under $500).

The major tech sites are mostly advising people to look for models in the $500 to $1000 price range for an assurance of safety and quality. While that’s a more realistic production cost range for a company to produce a safe and well-designed product of this nature, there’s absolutely nothing stopping the shoddier companies from simply jacking their prices up if they notice that the market is blindly trusting the more expensive models.

Shopping? See our buyer’s guide

You can read more about shopping for hoverboards by going to our Best Hoverboard list / buyer’s guide.

What about laws? Is hoverboard use legal?

As of this writing, the United States has no specific laws pertaining to these scooters as they are so new. Presumably, laws and local ordinances regarding Segways and skateboards would also apply here.

In those cases, you should check with your local jurisdiction, searching first for terms such as segway, gyroscopic, scooter, and balance (or balancing) as your keywords.

So there are no actual hoverboards that hover yet?

Real hoverboards? Not commercially available to the public… not yet at least.

There are three prototypes worth keeping an eye on, however. The Lexus and Hendo models use magnets,[6] while the Omni prototype uses air propulsion.[7]

Lexus Hoverboard

Lexus created a real hoverboard in time for Back to the Future Day… but there’s some serious limitations. Image courtesy Lexus.

While the Lexus and Hendo models actually work and can support the weight of a human body, they require strong conductive surfaces beneath them to function, and cooling of the magnets in the board is also an engineering issue that hasn’t yet been solved. Even if all those problems are solved, they’ll likely never be able to work over water (in true Back to the Future 2 style). They also haven’t developed a good method for steering as of yet, as you can’t ride them like a traditional skateboard.

Omni offers more potential for an all-terrain hoverboard, but the problem here is weight. To hold up a body and generate enough air to push it up constantly for an extended period, you need a pretty hefty battery. But that battery will have to be heavy… which adds even more weight.[7]

The reality is, real hoverboards aren’t likely to come until we have a completely new generation of energy storage batteries. And when that happens, hoverboards will probably be the least of our gadget excitement, as the entire world will be poised for change.

Until then, you’re still on wheels, but at least it feels like you’re hovering. You can compare prices on hoverboards below using PricePlow:

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References

  1. King, Hope; “Hoverboard fires being probed by Feds”; CNN Money; December 14, 2015; Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/14/technology/amazon-hoverboards/
  2. Krazit, Tom; “Dell to recall 4 million batteries”; CNET; December 20, 2006; Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/dell-to-recall-4-million-batteries/
  3. “Safety concerns with lithium-ion batteries”; Battery University; September 16, 2015; Retrieved from http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/safety_concerns_with_li_ion
  4. Perez, Sarah; “Amazon Files Suit Against Individuals Offering Fake Product Reviews On Fiverr.com”; TechCrunch.com; October 16, 2015; Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2015/10/16/amazon-files-suit-against-individuals-offering-fake-product-reviews-on-fiverr-com/
  5. Lecher, Colin; “Amazon is pulling hoverboards from its store pending safety review”; The Verge; December 12, 2015; Retrieved from http://www.theverge.com/2015/12/12/10016416/amazon-hoverboards-pull
  6. Trudell, Craig and Hagiwara, Yugi; “Lexus Builds A Functional Hoverboard Prototype”; Bloomberg Business; June 24, 2015; Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-24/lexus-builds-a-functional-hoverboard-prototype
  7. Usson, Mary-Ann; “Omni Hoverboard: Canadian inventor still refining his Guinness Record-breaking flying propeller device”; International Business Times; October 16, 2015; Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/omni-hoverboard-canadian-inventor-still-refining-his-guinness-record-breaking-flying-propeller-1524342
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