Surfing on air

Lexus develops a board that can hover above the ground via magnetic levitation

Lexus' hoverboard was tested over a track laid with magnets in Barcelona.
Lexus' hoverboard was tested over a track laid with magnets in Barcelona.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Imagine, if you will, being handed what looks like a skateboard that almost magically hovers a few centimetres above the ground. See yourself running, your hand beneath the board as it floats, suspended in midair. Carefully step on it to test its buoyancy. And then take a running leap onto it - just as you would with your beloved skateboard - only to have it slide out underneath you, leaving you flat on your rear.

Welcome to the world of the Lexus hoverboard.

Professional skateboarder Ross McGouran had to start over again as a beginner, learning to move without the help of any friction underneath. Science fiction turned into reality during the three days Lexus filmed the Slide mini-movie series.

Lexus has a history of facing the competition, such as German engineering, head-on. So it might strike some as a surprise that Toyota Motor's luxury car brand turned to the land of BMW and Mercedes when it wanted to create a hoverboard. Then again, Marty McFly from the Back To The Future (1985-1990) movies said it: "Yeah, well, history is gonna change."

Here is how it works: Lexus' hoverboard uses magnetic levitation, or maglev, to achieve frictionless movement. Liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors are combined with a magnetic surface to essentially repel gravity.

Maglev technology itself is not new and this is not the first hoverboard to use it. American start-up Arx Pax raised more than half a million dollars last year through a Kickstarter campaign to fund its Hendo Hoverboard. That device is dependent on batteries that last just 10 to 15 minutes and take an hour or two to charge.

The technology is also being used in mass rapid transportation systems such as the Shanghai Maglev Train. In Japan, the SCMaglev test train recently reached a top speed of 603kmh.

What is new is the spin that Lexus' German engineering partner, Evico, has put on the technology. Its design fits neatly into the Back To The Future movie buff's perception of how a hoverboard should look and work - especially those partial to Japanese luxury cars with spindle grilles and bamboo.

Lexus' initial Slide video trailers went viral. Suddenly, it seemed possible to be McFly, surfing through air. Still, the final video shows just how hard it is to ride this hoverboard. 

"A skateboard has got resistance. Even with a surfboard, you've got the resistance of water," says Mr David Nordstrom, general manager for global branding at Lexus International in Tokyo.

"This is essentially floating on air. If you've ever tried to stand on a board, or something on water without any momentum, that's what this kind of feels like."

Even though Lexus and Evico were able to pull off the project, do not expect to see a hoverboard fly past while you are walking down the street next year. To use maglev technology that would make this sort of hoverboard work, you need a magnetic metal track. Normal concrete pavements will not do.

Lexus solved this issue by converting a skate park in Barcelona into a temporary hoverboard skate park. On an existing track composed of cement and wood, the Lexus and Evico teams swooped in to lay down hundreds of small magnets.

The project took about 18 months to complete. Lexus considered throwing in the towel on several occasions, according to Ms Yolande Waldock, who leads the global brand team for Lexus International. But skateboarder McGouran ended up pushing the project forward with a new bag of tricks such as riding above water. 

In the new video, at which Bloomberg was given an early look, he swoops around a cement bowl, flies off a ramp and jumps a Lexus car.

"You feel like you're looking at a magic act," Mr Nordstrom says. "People are going to be calling Lexus and saying, 'Please build one, how much is it going to cost, we want to have one.'"

If he is right, Lexus may have disappointing news for fans: The company will not even venture a guess as to how much the hoverboard would cost. 

"You couldn't actually even put a figure on it," Ms Waldock says. "It's impossible to put a figure on it."

So why develop a hoverboard in the first place? Well, the car industry has long been an arena whose players fight for eyeballs. The competition for attention has never been stiffer: Carmakers are duking it out with technology giants that aspire to build self-driving vehicles and at least one chief executive officer moonlights as the head of a rocket company. It has never been as challenging as it is today to rise above the rest and turn heads.

So there: a real, working hoverboard. 

Ms Waldock says the response has been overwhelming. If the final video is to be remembered as fondly as watching Doc and Marty send their DeLorean back in time, its last scene will probably end up the clincher. 

"To see the hoverboard leave a ramp - and then join it again on the other side, after it's jumped a Lexus vehicle - is amazing," says Ms Waldock.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Surfing on air'. Subscribe