In 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) rides a hoverboard to escape his arch nemesis, Biff Tannen. Set in a futuristic 2015, the hoverboard was, at the time, a brilliant forecast of what might be ahead.
Unfortunately, what was not accurately predicted was the series of fires and explosions that accompanied modern hoverboards when they were sold to the public. The following pages explain hoverboards and their standard components, review the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s warning on hoverboards, and offer practical suggestions on the handling of related losses.
What Are Hoverboards?
True hoverboards float above the ground and water, like you see in the Back to the Future trilogy. Currently, there are prototypes of real hoverboards that use magnetic fields to float over specialized metallic surfaces, while others are shaped like skateboards or platforms and utilize small jet engines, leaf blower engines, or high-powered electric ducted fans. These, however, are not the subject of the recent craze.
Today, hands-free, self-balancing scooters are referred to as hoverboards. There are two main hoverboard designs: the board and the wheel. For the board type, one of the most popular designs is the two-wheeled scooter, as shown in this piece. They are battery powered, and rechargeable. As the name suggests, they have two wheels set on each side. There are motors inside the wheels, and usually there are two small platforms between the wheels that the rider stands on. Some two-wheeled hoverboards have gyroscopes built into pads that are controlled by the rider’s feet. Other hoverboards use mechanical switches under each foot.
The board is constructed in two pieces, with a wheel on each side connected by a hinge. Movement is controlled by tilting the platform with the right or left foot. To go forward, the rider tilts both feet forward. To turn, he applies pressure on the footpad opposite the direction he wants to go.
The second type of hoverboard is known as a “wheel.” One of the most prominent brands is the AirWheel, which has a large wheel in the middle or two wheels on each side, depending on the model. They have pressure-sensitive paddles on each side that the rider stands on. Wheel sizes vary from about 6.5 inches to 10 inches for the two-wheeled design, and the one-wheeled design ranges from 12 inches to 16 inches. One-wheeled models generally are more difficult to learn to control than two-wheeled models, so the time it takes to master it can vary greatly.
Common components may include up to two tires, fenders, mats that the rider stands on, display board, motor, LED lights, and underbody protection. When the underbody protection is removed from the bottom of the two-wheeled scooter, you can see closely packed electronics designed to include lithium-ion batteries.
Popularity, Failures, and Fires
In the early development stage, Shane Chen began a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 with a two-wheeled hoverboard. Thereafter, hoverboards appeared in China in 2014 (claims of patent infringement are ongoing) and later became rapidly popular in the U.S. in 2015 due to celebrity endorsements from the likes of Justin Bieber, Jamie Foxx, Kendall Jenner, and Chris Brown, to name a few.
Unfortunately, shortly after mass introduction of hoverboards in the United States, fires and explosions were reported to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). There have been at least 41 incidents in 19 states where consumers reported hoverboard fires that destroyed rooms and even entire homes. And that number is growing. Witnesses have described hoverboards exploding or catching fire while charging, being ridden, and even one while simply resting near a kiosk in a shopping mall. In the United Kingdom, of the 17,000 hoverboards imported and inspected, 15,000 failed basic safety checks. Complaints in the U.K. include bad batteries and bad electrical cables.
In response to reported fires and explosions, the CPSC opened an investigation into hoverboard failures. What became apparent is that, unlike vacuum cleaners, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) does not certify the entire hoverboard; it certifies the lithium-ion batteries that are used as well as the charging plug. As a result, Amazon is now requiring sellers to show proof that their hoverboards comply with specific safety standards, including UN 38.3, UL 1642, and UL 60950-1.
But that does not cover all the parts inside of a hoverboard. The wiring may be poor quality or use a risky design. Even if the battery and charger are UL certified, it does not mean the entire product is certified as a whole. The hoverboard is a new product without recognized safety standards that apply to the entire product, and UL has confirmed that there are no UL-certified hoverboards.
The CPSC investigation is examining the product failures as well as the lithium-ion battery. Lithium-ion battery packs contain liquid that is highly flammable if a short circuit occurs. One way these batteries can be damaged is a puncture of the thin sheet of plastic that separates the positive and negative sides of the battery. If that happens, the liquid electrolytes can heat up rapidly, causing the battery to explode. Tiny sharp metal particles that can be created in the manufacturing process may puncture the separator. Charging the battery repeatedly heats the battery cells, leading to electrolyte boiling, rupturing of the casing, and fire. The phenomenon is well known due to the spate of cellphone battery explosions in 2004, the Dell laptop battery recall in 2006, and the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2013. Batteries also may be damaged if they are poorly assembled and can fail due to foreseeable wear and tear during usage of a hoverboard.
Another area being investigated is the effect of supply and demand. Hoverboards are being heavily manufactured in China with little oversight. Some high-end sellers, like Apple and Samsung, produce products in China with heavy oversight of the manufacturing processes and materials. But since hoverboards are a collection of parts sourced from different Chinese manufacturers, quality and safety issues exist. Sellers are only distributors of hoverboards assembled in China from an array of factories. Unfortunately, copycat manufacturing is prevalent there, and tiny factories can recreate and sell knockoff copies of items, such as selfie sticks and miniature remote control helicopters, in record time.
Many knockoffs are sold cheaply, and consumers don’t complain when they break—likely because most items don’t cause fires. Thousands of Chinese workshops make identical hoverboards, so low-quality imitations are likely with these products. To stay competitive, companies tend to cut costs by using inferior components, which could lead to failures. Those manufacturers in the business of inexpensively copying the next consumer hit are not necessarily concerned with providing a safe product that requires customer service with a viable warranty.
Another suspected culprit in hoverboard fire and explosion incidents is the cutoff switch, a device that prevents overcharging. Products have been shipped with faulty cutoff switches, and some manufacturers have been accused of not including one with their hoverboards.
CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye released the following statement on the safety of hoverboards. It reads, in part:
CPSC field investigators are actively investigating hoverboard-related fires across the country and will open new cases as they come to our attention. We have purchased boards in the marketplace, and we have taken possession of boards that caught fire….Our expert staff is looking particularly closely at the configuration of the battery packs and compatibility with the chargers.
While the fire hazard has generated significant attention, the hazards of falling from one of these boards should not be downplayed. CPSC has received dozens of reports of injuries from hospital ERs, and they continue to feed us real-time data.
Also of concern is the fact that there are no safety standards in place for hoverboards. Strong safety standards protect consumers.
For those who are using a hoverboard (or what some companies are calling a smart board or balance board), here are some tips, based on what we know so far, to help reduce the risk of an incident:
- Avoid buying the product at a location (like a mall kiosk) or on a website that does not have information about who is selling the product and how they can be contacted if there is a problem. If you do not think you could find the seller again were a problem to arise with your board, that should be a warning to you not to do business with them.
- Do not charge a hoverboard overnight or when you are not able to observe the board.
- Charge and store in an open dry area away from combustibles (meaning items that can catch fire).
- Do not charge directly after riding. Let the device cool for an hour before charging.
- If giving a hoverboard to someone, leave it in its partially charged state. Do not take it out of the package to bring it to a full charge and then wrap it back up. Often, the product comes partially charged. Leave it in that state until it is ready to be used.
- Look for the mark of a certified national testing laboratory. While this does not rule out counterfeits, the absence of such a mark means your safety is likely not a priority for that manufacturer.
Just because a product is popular does not mean that it is safe. Remember the recall of lawn darts and magnetic Buckyballs? Both were popular and later banned. Care must be taken with hoverboards. If you have a hoverboard loss, retain the appropriate expert or counsel to investigate the loss. Procure and preserve the failed product, determine the manufacturer/distributor, and retain all product literature and packaging. Have your consultants evaluate the batteries, charging mechanism, and wiring to determine if they were involved in the fire.