Commentary

Safety Issues Put A Damper On Hoverboard Sales

The sizzling market for self-balancing scooters being marketed as hoverboards this holiday season appears to be doused as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has announced a “high priority” investigation in the wake of multiple reports of battery fires and usage injuries and other actions to restrict their use or sale have hit headlines and social media.

“No sooner had these fun-looking, futuristic gizmos arrived on the scene than they've seemingly become public enemy #1 amidst a string of safety controversies,” Peter Dockrill writes for Science Alert, also pointing out that they don’t actually hover.

They have been pulled completely from Overstock.com and Amazon has suspended the sales of most of the devices pending documentation from manufacturers that they are following safety standards. They’ve also been banned from at least three U.S. airlines, and the Consumer Electronics Show says they won’t be allowed on the show floor next month.

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“The three largest U.S. airlines — Delta, United and American — have banned hoverboards from all flights over concerns that the lithium ion batteries used to power them could potentially spark a fire on board,” Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill, even as the CSPC is investigating reports of 10 fires linked to hoverboards across nine states.

Jay Whitacre, a researcher in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, tells Wired’s Tim Moynihan that the problem doesn't lie with the scooters themselves but rather with the quality of the lithium-ion batteries they are using.

“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,” Whitacre tells Wired. “These are known as ‘low cost li-ion batteries’ by most in the industry — they are not knock-offs or copies, but are instead just mass-manufactured cells.”

CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis tells The Hill’s Wheeler that the agency “is investigating whether the batteries are to blame for the fires and in the meantime hopes the industry steps forward and establishes safety standards for the product.”

But that’s not the only concern expressed by federal regulators.

“Meanwhile, more than 30 people have already been hospitalized for a variety of hoverboard-related accidents, including head trauma and injuries to limbs,” writes Barbara Nefer for the San Francisco Examiner. That comes even before the majority of hoverboards get into the hands of kids and teens as gifts on Christmas morning.”

“Amazon has asked all hoverboard manufacturers to provide documentation they are following all applicable safety standards, as first reported by gadget site BestReviews, and later confirmed by the Verge, writesQuartz’ Josh Horwitz. “Hoverboard’s sudden surge in popularity came in the midst of a patent war, opening the door to dozens of importers who are purchasing shoddy products from manufactures in China," as Quartz has recently reported.

Horwitz reports that Amazon’s U.S. website now only lists hoverboards made by Jetson or Razor, which recently purchased the U.S. patents for the device from engineer Shane Chen and investor Mark Cuban, as opposed to “hundreds of listings” last week.

Meanwhile, “the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, posted a note on its website that said: ‘Wheeled transport devices (with or without motors) are not permitted at any CES venue. This includes hoverboards, skateboards, uniwheels and all similar products,’” CNN Money’s Ahiza Garcia reports, also pointing out that British authorities and the New York police have deemed them illegal to ride on public streets and sidewalks.

The CSPC, meanwhile, is appearing as un-Grinch-lie as possible for a government regulatory agency.

“We know how popular the product is,” Davis says. “We know consumers are giving the product as a gift during the holidays and we are working all across the country to move our investigation forward as quickly as possible.”

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