Why walk when you could hover? The dream of hovering above the ground instead of walking has long obsessed engineers and product developers, and the self-balancing scooters known as “hoverboards” have been nothing short of a retail phenomenon since they came on the market a few years ago. But it may be time to set aside your board and step onto solid ground: As ABC News’ Gio Benitez and Margaret Chadbourn report, over half a million hoverboards were just recalled due to safety concerns.
It’s a blow to an industry that, just last year, seemed as if it was invincible. As Mashable’s Adario Strange writes, the board’s rise was fueled by “rapid and blind adoption by the celebrity class, scores of out-of-nowhere brands you've never heard of all offering the same product, and, of course, zero safety certifications.” At the height of their popularity in 2015, notes Fortune’s Scott Cendrowski, up to 40,000 hoverboards were being imported into the United States every day—many of them Chinese knockoffs designed to capitalize on what seemed to be an unstoppable fad.
Self-balancing scooters may not actually rise off of the ground, but they still had the ability to intrigue would-be riders. The devices are controlled by riders’ feet and depend on motorized wheels and tilt sensors that respond to forward, backward and sideways rider motion. The result is a fun ride—until, that is, the fires started.
Earlier this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission wrote an open letter to hoverboard manufacturers in response to a rash of incidents in which the scooters burned due to the lithium-ion battery packs that fueled their wheels. Between December 2015 and February 2016, the agency wrote, “CPSC received reports, from consumers in 24 states, of 52 self-balancing scooter fires resulting in over $2 million in property damage, including the destruction of two homes and an automobile.” The agency laid out voluntary safety standards for the boards, but the warning prompted online retailers like Amazon and Overstock.com to stop selling the boards. Airlines like American and Delta even banned the devices on airplanes.
That didn’t stop the import and sale of hoverboards, though: Cendrowski estimates that, despite patent infringement lawsuits and growing concerns about the boards, the industry made at least $2 billion in a year and a half. But now the jig is up. Today, the CPSC recalled about 501,000 self-balancing scooters, reporting at least 99 fire incidents and urging consumers to stop using them and contact manufacturers for a refund, repair, or replacement. Swagway X1, iMoto, Hovertrax, Hype Roam, and Powerboard are just a few of the affected brands. “We are urging consumers to act quickly,” CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye told Benitez and Chadbourn.
The recall may mark the end of the hoverboard fad, but that doesn’t mean that real hoverboards aren’t floating somewhere in the future. Real hoverboards that levitate, like the Hendo and Zapata, haven’t been commercialized quite yet. But the demise of self-powered scooters may well speed up production of the technology coveted by every Marty McFly wannabe.