Ever since “Back to the Future Part II” hit theaters in 1989 with its campy depiction of 2015, Americans have been obsessed with hoverboards. So it’s fitting that during Christmas 2015 “hoverboards” were the number three top search on Google for toys, although these so-called hoverboards don’t quite live up to the name.
Although they most definitely have wheels — that most definitely do not hover off the ground — these futuristic devices became a trending item in 2015. They operate like a Segway scooter but resemble a large skateboard, and the boards became an overnight sensation.
Unfortunately, a number of Chinese manufacturers in Shenzhen capitalize on trends like this by quickly pumping out bargain versions of consumer products, only without the regulations, standards, and oversight that Western consumers take for granted. Already, Shenzhen manufacturers have shipped millions of hoverboards, including 400,000 in October ahead of the holiday shopping season.
Some of these hoverboards ignite when overheated, posing a serious risk to their owners. Airlines banned the products from their planes, Amazon and other retailers restricted sales, and regulatory bodies in the U.S. and U.K. are sounding the alarm.
In December, the U.K. National Trading Standards service reported that fully 88% of the 17,000 hoverboards assessed at U.K. border crossings were deemed unsafe and detained.
According to a statement from the regulatory agency, “Officers from National Trading Standards Safety at Ports and Borders Teams and trading standards services in Scotland have detained the boards — a ‘must-have’ on Christmas lists this year — due to a range of concerns, such as safety issues with the plug, cabling, charger, battery or the [thermal cutoff switch] within the board, which often fails. Many of the items detained and sent for testing have been found to have noncompliant plugs without fuses, which increases the risk of the device overheating, exploding or catching fire.”
Thermal cutoff fuses are a single-use device designed to automatically cut off electrical flow in the event of overheating, and they’re required by regulators in countries around the world.
And according to Quartz.com, “Hundreds of makeshift entrepreneurs, many of whom have no engineering or technology expertise, are doing deals with white-label Chinese manufacturers to make hoverboards. They then re-sell them using names like Phunkeeduck, Swagway, Fiturbo, Hover Booster, Galaxy Board, and Cyboard.”
That means many of the hoverboards sold in U.S. stores or bought online were designed with faulty or counterfeit thermal cutoff fuses.
“All the hoverboards in the US are sold by importers, who barely even know the factories they are buying it from,” Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, a hardware analyst in Singapore, told Quartz in December. “In a hyper-competitive market that’s driven by a fad, taking six months to do a comprehensive testing program for safety means you’re missing out on a lot of business.”