For those who grew up in the 1980s, the promise of cool 21st Century technology was brought to life in movies like Back to the Future Part II – self-lacing shoes (which are soon to be a thing), wearable technology, video phone calls, drones, and of course, hoverboards.
Unfortunately, the whole hoverboard thing has turned out to be less exciting than 12-year-old me was anticipating. For one thing, the “hoverboards” that exist today don’t actually hover. They roll on wheels, basically like Segweys without handlebars, and in fact one company that produces them even plays off the name, calling itself Swagway. This technological disappointment has been bemoaned by more than a few social commentators, but the dismay of some disaffected journalists is not the worst of it.
Because not only do hoverboards stay on the ground – they can also can catch on fire.
Half a Million Hoverboards Recalled
On July 6, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced the recall of 500,000 “self-balancing scooters” – as the agency refers to the products known popularly as hoverboards. The reason behind the recall is an overheating lithium-ion battery that could lead to smoking, catching fire, and even exploding.
This is not the first time lithium-ion batteries have been the primary culprit behind a recall. In fact, these types of batteries have frequently been blamed for fire and explosion hazards, usually in laptops. Just this year alone, the CPSC has reported recalls from Panasonic, Toshiba, Sony, HP, and Compaq laptops all because of the potential for lithium-ion batteries to burn users and potentially start fires. Similar recalls have been issued for lithium-ion batteries used in flashlights and battery packs, as well.
The most recent recall of hoverboards affected seven different manufacturers and two retailers. Although Amazon.com did not issue a recall along with these others, ABC News reported that the mammoth online retailer worked out an agreement with the CPSC back in February to provide refunds to any customers who purchased hoverboards through their site, presumably due to similar problems as with the most current recall.
One company, the aforementioned Swagway, is responsible for more than half of the recalled hoverboards, with 267,000 of its Swagway X1 models being included in the action. According to the recall notice, 42 reports have been made of the hoverboard’s battery catching fire or exploding, resulting in at least 16 injuries. The company is giving customers a choice between replacing the lithium-ion battery with a new UL certified battery, or receiving a $200 credit toward the purchase of a new item from their product set. The products being recalled originally cost anywhere from $350 to $900.
New Technology Presents New Risks
New technologies, such as these hoverboards, tend to bring to light new potential dangers as consumers, safety inspectors, and manufacturers uncover malfunctions or design flaws. The problems can be inherent in the products themselves, or they can come about due to faulty components, such as overheating lithium-ion batteries.
While it is good to see that companies like Swagway and others are addressing these problems now, it’s also unfortunate that such measures are not taken until people are injuries. Fortunately, in this case, there appears to have been no fatalities related to the recalled hoverboards. Nonetheless, more than 100 incidents of smoking, fires, or explosions have been reported, with a number of those occurrences resulting in personal injury and/or damage to property.
The chairman of the CPSC, Elliot Kaye, acknowledged how pressing this recall is in a public statement. “We are urging consumers to act quickly. We’ve concluded pretty definitively that these are not safe products the way they were designed.”
Nonetheless, the products were on the market for nearly a year, from June 2015 through May 2016, before the recall was issued. Most were sold through online venues, and it’s unclear whether problems may surface with other models of hoverboard that are not part of the current recall.
While government agencies can step in to help with these sorts of problems after the fact – for example, after dozens of people have been burned or otherwise harmed by overheated batteries – it really is up to manufacturers to ensure the products they make are safe. That means putting their new devices through rigorous testing, and making sure the components they use adhere to industry safety standards. Had these hoverboard makers properly tested their devices before selling them to the public at large, it seems likely the battery problems would have been discovered before anyone could be put in danger.
As consumers, it is also important for us to understand that with new technology comes new risks. Early adopters may look cool because they have all the latest gadgets, but sometimes it’s worth just waiting for the kinks to get worked out. The next model will, hopefully, be safer.