Electric Currents

Here's Why We Don't Endorse Electric Hoverboards

Dec 12, 2015

As the publisher of EV World I continually get emails from firms offering us hoverboards to sell to our readers. Here's why we don't.

The British government recently confiscated some 15,000 'hoverboards' because of safety concerns: far too many have burst into flames as their lithium batteries go into thermal runaway. But Brits aren't the only ones experiencing this problem. It's becoming all too common in the United States as well, especially since 'hoverboards,' like toy aerial drones, have become hot sellers this holiday season.

Inspired by the fictional anti-gravity 'hoverboard' depicted in the 1980's movie trilogy "Back to the Future," clever engineers in China, using technology originally pioneered by Dean Kamen and his team in the Segway scooter, developed an electric device with two wheels that, with practice, can transport a child or an adult. Toyota has demonstrated similar concepts in the past. At $300-500, they aren't cheap, but they are intriguing and they are, technically speaking, an EV, electric vehicle.

Apart from the bodily injury risks they pose, and there are all sorts of Youtube videos demonstrating this, they don't appear to serve any practical mobility purpose. Sure they are fun, assuming you don't break any bones learning to ride one, but beyond that, they are little more than amusing distractions, and in the case of cheap knock-offs and counterfeits where electrical safety was not a priority for the manufacturer or distributor, they can be fire hazards, as New York family discovered. Hoverboards have suddenly exploded in shopping malls from Washington state to Alabama.

The larger problem they pose, however, is the image they convey of battery-powered EVs. Remember the furor surrounding Chevy Volt fire and then Fisker Karma and the early Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV? Even the renowned Tesla Model S wasn't immune after several cars caught fire, two after striking road hazards, the third after a drunk driver drove it into a retaining wall in Mexico. Even electric bicycles have had their share of problems, with several bike shops being severely damaged by fire after charging batteries overheated and ignited. The Volt fire was attributed to a combination mistakes by NHTSA crash testers. The Karma and Mitsubishi fires were caused, if memory serves, by battery manufacturing errors. Tesla's two reported fires happened after drivers ran over a steel trailer hitch and a large piece of concrete block, both of which had fallen onto the road. In none of these cases was anyone injured.

The bicycle battery fires, however, do offer a parallel to those hoverboard fires. The problem, it's believed, can be traced back to faulty battery manufacture, usually with cells produced by obscure Chinese suppliers, apparently willing to take profit-improving shortcuts. Lithium batteries are powerful, but also temperamental. They require sensitive computer circuitry to monitor and manage their charge and discharge. The chemistry used in the cells themselves is also important. Some combinations are more prone to thermal runaway than others. Combine all these factors with shoddy manufacturing and quality control in the pursuit of a quick profit and you create the potential for a dangerous consumer product. At least two of the e-bike manufacturers I know personally now stress that they only use known reputable brands of lithium cells in their bike batteries and they aren't manufactured in China where slipshod counterfeit products are a huge problem. This isn't to say that the Chinese can't make quality products. It's just hard for Western consumers to tell the real deal from the knockoff. See the Daily Mail article for recommendations.

Finally, there's another issue that keeps me from giving these products any coverage, apart from what now I am writing about them: they don't provide a tangible benefit to society in terms of practical transportation alternatives. This is why we provide little coverage for electric skateboards and their like. While some people find them of use in getting from point A to point B, most people simply won't hop on one to get to work, school, shop or run errands: all things that you can do with an electric-assist bicycle. A bike, electric or not, offers a viable mobility option for far more people than a Segway or hoverboard ever will. Your hoverboard might be fun to ride, but beyond that, what real benefit does it offer you, your family, your neighborhood, your nation? Will it displace a car for even one trip? It's doubtful. My guess is that if it doesn't break a few weeks after you buy it, it'll end up in the corner somewhere, its battery drained and interest lost, collecting dust like the electric skateboard I was given half a decade ago.

Maybe there's a better way to spend your money at Christmas?

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