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Hoverboards Are Blowing up This Holiday Season

Futuristic, fun, and…flammable? The hoverboard took 2015 by storm and consequently became eBay’s fifth top selling item on Cyber Monday, with one board sold every 12 seconds. Popularized by celebrities, athletes, and musicians like Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, and J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers, hoverboards are blowing up in both popularity and in real-life explosions.

For one high-end brand, PhunkeeDuck, which calls hoverboards “the future of personal transportation,” the gadget was one of Santa’s most delivered gifts. However, although they undoubtedly look cool, hoverboards---which range in cost from around $300 to almost $2,000 for the more premium brands---pose a substantial threat to riders and owners alike. Some falls made their way to Instagram to join the trending #hoverboardfail, which increased in popularity as riders tried to master the art of balancing on the two-wheeled contraption. Some were more serious, though; many riders spent their vacation at the hospital receiving treatment for broken and sprained limbs, concussions, and other injuries.

Aside from the falling risks, which have led doctors to advise riders to wear helmets and other padding---as one would when rollerblading or skateboarding---hoverboards have proven to be susceptible to bursting into flames. In Australia, a charging hoverboard caught fire overnight and left a family of five homeless. Similar situations have devastated families in Maryland and Louisiana, among other places.

Lithium-ion batteries have been cited as the culprit for hoverboards’ flammability due to the electrolyte solution they use. These batteries are popular because of their lightweight quality, but they need to be working perfectly in order to be safe. Unfortunately, because so many knock-off hoverboard brands and manufacturers exist, defects are common in the batteries.

“There is no way to tell when buying, since the catastrophic failure likely will not manifest until the battery is fully charged and discharged several times,” Jay Whitacre, professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said to Wired. “This charging/discharging mechanically exercises the guts of the cell and typically provides the ultimate trigger for the failure.”

High-end manufacturers like Razor Hovertrax worry that a few faulty hoverboards are tarnishing the image of the entire industry, but Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Elliot F. Kaye asserts that he still doesn’t trust the product. “There’s nothing that I’ve seen, from the way that these are being manufactured, that would give me confidence that even if someone produces paperwork that these products meet industry standards that that would be the case,” Kaye said.

While the CPSC conducts an investigation on the dangers of hoverboards, airlines like Delta, American, United, British Airways and others have banned the boards on their flights, while Amazon and Overstock have pulled them from their online stores. The City of New York has prohibited them, and California restricts hoverboarders---who must be older than 15 years of age---to bike lanes and sidewalks.

College campuses are speaking out against hoverboards as well. Wellesely College recently banned the use, possession, or storage of the gadgets, and Louisiana State Univeristy restricted them on campus and around campus-run housing.

Boston College has not yet regulated the use of hoverboards on campus, and they have become especially popular among athletes. Some students, though, are not in favor of them. Courtney Gleason, MCAS '18, thinks that if you choose to use a hoverboard to get around campus, “then you’re using it at your own risk.”

Whether you are in favor of them or not, the CPSC has several tips for riders to remain safe:

  • Buy hoverboards only from credible sellers
  • Observe the boards while they charge in a dry, open area.
  • Let them cool before charging.
  • Look for the mark of a certified national testing laboratory to avoid counterfeit products.
  • Do not ride near vehicular traffic.
  • And, wear safety gear when operating a board.

The verdict is still out on whether hoverboards will disappear as a passing fad or continue to rise in the personal transportation industry. Regardless, expect to see stricter regulation and an overhaul on safety features as the boards become more popular, and don't be surprised if Boston College soon follows the national trend to eliminate them from campus altogether.