Maybe it’s marketing, or maybe it’s just that hoverboards look like a gadget straight from 2050, but the self-balancing scooters are one of the most popular items of 2015.
On Black Friday, consumers bought over 5,000 hoverboards on eBay, and the site told CNN that they’re selling one hoverboard every 12 seconds. The hoverboards don’t actually hover (here’s a demo of a self-balancing scooter), but they do have the effect of feeling like levitating when the driver can twist, turn, and whirl around on a dime.
Here’s how they work. Popular Science breaks down the components of a hoverboard into a few basic pieces. They have a gyroscope to determine the balance of the machine, motors that keep the board balanced, microprocessors to manage power output to the motors, and large batteries that fuel the device.
Microprocessors in the vehicle monitor the direction the rider leans, while the gyroscope gathers information about the tilt to the board. Notably, “every self-balancing scooter is different, meaning that each one uses a different battery, set of microprocessors, and motors.” When they work, the little boards are a pretty amazing piece of twenty-first century technology.
However, these popular little machines have run into a small snafu: they explode.
This week, Amazon reported that they’ve removed almost all of the hoverboards from their websites after nearly a dozen reports of exploding hoverboards and 29 hospital visits resulting from malfunctioning hoverboards. Less than a week ago, all major airlines banned hoverboards from their flights, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that those who purchase hoverboards for Christmas presents don’t put them beneath trees, due to the whole exploding problem. And that problem? It lies in the manufacturing.
You can read a fascinating article here from a Buzzfeed reporter who visited factories in China where the hoverboards are made. In essence, the hugely popular hoverboards inspired a boom in manufacturing that has trickled down to hundreds of Chinese factories producing the boards in generally unregulated environments. Since they can’t make the boards quickly enough to keep up with demand, the unregulated manufacturers are thought to use cost-cutting measures like low-quality lithium-ion batteries and chargers, which can sometimes catch fire.
Writer Joseph Bernstein calls the trend “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. It reaches its saturation point quickly. It moves from product to product without sentiment.”
While it’s true that 90% of hoverboards are most likely safe, it seems risky to flaunt the possibility of being one of the 10% on an exploding hoverboard. Manufacturing issues like these are one of the reasons that, whenever possible, it’s best to purchase from a manufacturer you know who’s under highly regulated conditions in the United States.
Although we take for granted that products are usually safe and controlled by product safety commissions, the reality is that we aren’t always that lucky. And sometimes, it’s better to play it safe than sorry.