One of this year’s hottest holiday gifts doesn’t really hover, but they are likely to explode and their tendency to catch fire is putting a damper on the Christmas season.
Self-balancing scooters, or hoverboards, have been banned on airlines, by the New York Police Department, and by at least one major retailer because their cheaply made lithium-ion batteries keep exploding.
Benjamin Hax, a hardware investment firm spokesman, told Quartz that the number of hoverboard fire incident reports doesn’t reflect how big the problem actually is.
Considering the lack of standards, controls, and traceability, the question is not ‘Why have there been so many accidents?’ but rather, ‘Why have there been so few?
Exploding hoverboards have been responsible for house fires in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Hong Kong, London, and New York while another board caused a Washington mall evacuation after it caught fire.
When the U.K.’s National Trading Standards inspected 17,000 hoverboards, they discovered 15,000, or 88 percent, of them to be unsafe because of issues with the battery, cable, plug, or cut-off switch, according to Quartz.
The U.S., however, has no such safety inspection regulations in place.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Jay Whitacre told Wired that the problem is, many of the exploding hoverboards have cheap batteries manufactured in China where there is little regulatory control.
“There are a lot of factories in China that now make Li-ion batteries, and the reality is that the quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top tier producers such as LG or Samsung.”
The cheap batteries may have small holes in them due to impurities in the metal used in the manufacturing process, and that can cause the device to short circuit. A defective charger could also put to much strain on the batteries, causing them to explode or the batteries could just pop from strain.
Explosions from lithium-ion batteries aren’t new; a decade ago, the same problem existed with smartphones and laptops. So much energy is packed into the small batteries they become very volatile, which is why strict U.S. standards were enacted to ensure the batteries in everyday electronics didn’t explode and catch fire.
No such standards exist in China’s self-regulating manufacturing sector, and an ongoing three-way hoverboard patent war has opened the door for a deluge of cheaply made knock-off brands.
In October alone, 400,000 of the so-called hoverboards were shipped out of China’s Shenzhen manufacturing hub, according to Quartz.
— NTRSCTN (@NTRSCTN) December 14, 2015
White-label Chinese manufacturers specialize in making items for other companies to sell under their own label and they’re not worried about patent infringement. One company, Alibaba.com, will even loan money for companies to place a bulk order online for sale in the U.S., making it possible for anyone to manufacture and sell cheaply made self-balancing scooters or hoverboards.
Hardware analyst Andrew “Bunnie” Huang told Quartz that none of the hoverboards sold in the U.S. are required to be inspected for safety.
“All the hoverboards in the U.S. are sold by importers, who barely even know the factories they are buying it from. In a hypercompetitive market that’s driven by a fad, taking six months to do a comprehensive testing program for safety means you’re missing out on a lot of business.”
The moral of the story is even though that expensive hoverboard is really nothing more than a hands-free Segway, it could still ruin Christmas for many people.
[Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]