Not since the Segway has a personal transportation device garnered as much interest as the hoverboard, a two-wheeled, self-balancing electronic skateboard. Viral videos of the devices—also called smart boards or balance boards—took the internet by storm and, by last December, hoverboards were the must-have present of the holiday season.
The hoverboard craze is about a product category, rather than a particular company or brand. There was no one maker of hoverboards; various unknown companies all produced essentially the same product but with different names, different packaging, and from different factories—some of which had quickly retooled to take advantage of the sudden demand for electronic gizmos that could fetch a few hundred dollars at retail.
Before long, though, reports surfaced of hoverboards catching fire, sometimes within homes and causing significant damage. In one case, a user posted a video of his hoverboard bursting into flames before he even had a single ride on it. A common thread between these incidents was either overcharging the devices’ lithium ion batteries, or some kind of electrical short when trying to get the devices rolling.
By Christmas, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was investigating at least a dozen hoverboard-related fires across the country. By the time of this writing, that number had grown to 39. The CPSC has also issued tips on the safe usage of these devices. First and foremost is to have an extinguisher on hand when using a hoverboard; not exactly a ringing safety endorsement. There were also notes against buying hoverboards from retailers or websites that did not offer adequate product information, overcharging the devices’ batteries, and looking to see if your overboard bore the mark of a certified national testing laboratory.
A lithium ion battery is a small fire waiting to happen; puncture one and it will instantly burst into flame. What makes them safe is strict adherence to product safety standards, shepherded by active compliance programs that ensure internal practices meet or exceed those mandated for consumer safety. The problem with hoverboards would seem that certain companies that are making these devices lack such controls and, in their rush to capitalize on a craze, are contributing to a public safety issue.
That hoverboards are mostly manufactured in China would be a convenient target at which to point fingers. But iPhones are manufactured there too, and we don’t see them exploding. With almost every product safety issue, there either came a directive from the top to skirt best practices, or an erosion in those best practices. The key is compliance. Manufacturers with strong compliance programs can take advantage of a low-cost manufacturing environment without issue. Those without strong compliance programs will eventually head into trouble, regardless of whether they are in China. This kind of thing can happen anywhere.
But there is a bright side to this. Razor, the maker of popular children’s push scooters, also got into the hoverboard market in time for the holiday buying season, bringing a prominent and trustworthy brand name into the game. CEO Carlton Calvin went on CNN to assure the public that Razor’s hoverboards would not go up in flames, thanks to the company’s high internal-quality standards. The company is also going after rival hoverboard makers seen as violating intellectual property laws with knockoff designs that infringe on patents to which Razor has acquired the rights. And it isn’t the only company trying to tame the market; at a prominent consumer electronics trade event in January, U.S. Marshals raided the booth of a company reportedly marketing a one-wheeled scooter in what amounted to brazen patent infringement.
It all points to a product category that, while its rush to market seems to have embodied some critical compliance failures, might yet show that with the right adherence to best practices, hoverboards can be a ticket to ride, rather than a disaster in the making.