What is the hottest-selling tech gadget this holiday season? Hoverboards. On Black Friday, deal-seekers bought more than 5,000 of these ultracool self-balancing scooters on eBay. The online marketplace claims they are now selling one every 12 seconds.
Yet there is mounting concern over the safety of this latest craze, as dozens of injuries, some serious, have resulted from crashes and falls. Currently, there is no requirement that safety equipment be worn when riding a hoverboard, but it is highly suggested that users wear a helmet, wrist guards and kneepads.
Just recently, two hoverboards — a HoverBoost HoverBoard and one from a company called Fit Turbo — both powered by lithium-ion batteries, erupted in flames. While it is not clear if the batteries are to blame, experts are urging parents to read the directions carefully when charging hoverboards.
Selling between $270 and $2,000, the boards were pioneered in 2013 by a Chinese manufacturer called Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology (later shortened to Chic Robotics), simply as a two-wheeled scooter balanced on a gyroscope. Shortly after, a number of other Chinese companies began making them, white-labeling them as "hoverboards." American manufacturers — such as IO Hawk, Zero G and WONFAST — soon piled on.
Even with so many manufacturers producing hoverboards, in an array of colors, buyers will be hard-put to walk into a local store to buy one.
The boards are primarily available through independent sellers via Amazon and Shopify, eBay and some mall kiosks, as ongoing patent disputes over the gadgets have caused major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy, to back off after initially announcing they would have them in stock for the holidays. Modell's Sporting Goods sells a version called the Swagway in limited supply.
Amazon lists at least 40 different models, but they are generally the same product, just labeled under different brand names. Each generally weighs between 17 and 22 pounds and can travel up to 12 miles on a single charge (a full charge takes around three hours). The average top speed is around 10 miles per hour. Standard, 7-inch hoverboards carry a weight of about 220 pounds.
Yet despite risk of injury or fire, sales for these glorified scooters have been steadily increasing over the past few months due to celebrities and pro athletes posting their rides on social media. And it's not expected to slow anytime soon — not even with the NYPD's recent announcement banning hoverboards from city streets, with the threat of other major hubs following suit.
In fact, if the ban in the U.K. is any example, all this media attention will most likely cause sales to surge.
In October, the U.K.'s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) declared hoverboards illegal on main roads and sidewalks, stating they could be ridden on private property — such as in malls or corporate complexes — only with permission. The hoverboards, they claimed, must adhere to the same rules as Segways, which are classified as motor vehicles and therefore prohibited from main roads.
But rather than stall consumers' interest, the CPS announcement caused a major jump in sales — as much as 215 percent, according to UK retailer ApplicancesDirect.co.uk.
In New York City, the new ban means unlawful riders could face fines up to $200.
These electric gliders seem to have met with challenges ever since Marty McFly hopped on his pink hoverboard in Back to the Future Part II in 1989. Since then, the public has been waiting to get their hands on one of these levitating skateboards, and while engineers far and wide have been in the works to create it, consumers have been disappointed.
Mattel, whose logo is on the iconic prop in the science-fiction comedy, announced at the 2012 Toy Fair it would be producing a limited-edition real-life gliding replica for $130. But buyers were disappointed; besides the disclaimer on the front of the box — "*Hover Board will not actually hover" — the plastic "replica" was more like a toy.
Even Back to the Future trilogy co-creator Bob Gale did not hide his frustration: "I put myself out there to promote this, so now I want to publicly stand here with egg on my face and apologise. This product, at this price, falls short of the top notch standards that you and I have come to expect for something that carries the Back to the Future brand. "
Then, in 2014, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk had to make a public apology after die-hard hoverboard hopefuls were fooled by a video that went viral, showing Hawk and a host of others riding a levitating skateboard made by HUVr Corp., a company claiming they have a staff of "materials science, electricityand magnetism experts who've solved an important part of one of science's mysteries: the key to antigravity."
But the video trickery quickly revealed itself after it was found that HUVr did not actually exist and that the stunt was pulled off by comedy video website Funny or Die.
But the good news, as predicted by the time-traveling blockbuster, is that engineers finally have finally come up with a real-life levitating skateboard. And it works just like the one in the movie — sorta.
Omni, Hendo and Lexus have all been able to prove that a gliding board is possible, but besides their hefty price tag — the Hendo sells for $10,000 — these boards are anything but perfect. The battery life is extremely short, lasting only about seven minutes, and the Hendo and Lexus must hover over a special, conducting surface, with magnets embedded in the ground, in order to float.
Arx Pax, maker of the Hendo, has raised more than $500,000 in its Kickstarter campaign, doubling its goal, and to date has sold 11 of its $10,000 boards. The Lexus board is not for sale, and Omni is still working to perfect its prototype, which last May broke the Guinness World Record for longest distance traveled by a hoverboard, flying a distance of 905 feet at a height of 16 feet in the air in just 1.5 minutes.
Perhaps next year's favorite wish list item will be Doc Brown's smoke-spewing DeLorean time machine. But holding out for the famous time-traveling replica to come available — and affordable — may be as futile as lightning striking the same clock tower twice.