Hoverboards' fate in the balance?

The self-balancing so-called hoverboards are coming under scrutiny, mainly because of their unpredictable lithium-ion batteries.
The self-balancing so-called hoverboards are coming under scrutiny, mainly because of their unpredictable lithium-ion batteries.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Retailers shelving motorised scooters after reports of fires and explosions

NEW YORK • So-called hoverboards, the two-wheeled, gliding motorised scooters that have taken over sidewalks and social media in recent months, are coming under greater scrutiny after reports of fires and explosions in the US.

With the fad growing and people getting hurt, some online retailers are removing the products from their sites, and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission is rushing to investigate as the Christmas shopping season rolls on.

Commission chairman Elliot Kaye said it has logged 29 emergency room visits and 11 reports of fires in 10 states. "We're particularly sensitive to the fact that many have been purchased and wrapped," he said on Monday.

The self-balancing boards do not hover or fly, but they go fast enough to attract trouble.

Officials have banned the troublesome toys from city sidewalks and airplanes, and fire marshals across the United States are issuing warnings against them amid stories of fires and explosions.

A home in Louisiana was badly damaged last month after one of the electric scooters caught fire while being recharged.

This month, the battery pack on one of the gadgets appeared to catch fire as a man rode it down a sidewalk in Alabama. And, last week, a scooter caught fire in a mall in Washington state as holiday shoppers watched.

Meanwhile, some online retailers, like Overstock, have decided to stop selling the electric scooters altogether. Amazon is reportedly pulling e-listings for some of the boards from its virtual shelves. Some top-rated hoverboards are now missing from the site, and one manufacturer told The Verge that the toys were subject to an Amazon safety review. But consumers can still easily find hoverboards for sale direct from several manufacturers and big-box retailers.

In Singapore, hoverboards can be bought online or from resellers.

Mr Kaye said Chinese companies manufacturing and selling budget models on eBay and elsewhere are a particular area of concern.

But the fact that many of the problematic toys are coming from the same part of the world may be a good thing in this case. "I think my hope would be it would at least allow us to feel like we discovered the universe of these products," he said. "On the back end, certainly we would want to work with the Chinese government."

A leading indicator of the fires appears to be the devices' unpredictable lithium-ion batteries, Mr Kaye said. Since the toys are unregulated, several companies are using different manufacturing techniques in order to make a generic model.

Poorly designed batteries can overheat and are prone to explosion. But, as Wired reported, there is no guarantee that even high-quality batteries will not catch fire, which means it will not be easy for consumers to safeguard against hoverboard fires.

The National Association of Fire Marshals recommends that consumers do not leave the devices unattended while they charge, and let the devices cool off before recharging them.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Hoverboards' fate in the balance?'. Print Edition | Subscribe