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Bad Batteries May Cause Hoverboard Craze to Flame Out

By Peter Suciu
Dec 14, 2015 2:44 PM PT
swagway-hoverboard-amazon-lithium-ion-batteries-overheating

Amazon has pulled some of this holiday season's most popular gifts from its website amid safety concerns, according to reports that surfaced Monday. It apparently stopped selling several brands of electric self-balancing scooters -- aka "hoverboards" -- including the Swagway (pictured above).

The move comes on the heels of last week's news that Delta Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines no longer would allow the devices on flights, either as carry-ons or in checked luggage.

Reports of fires and even explosions have made headlines in the past month. A now-infamous video captures a hoverboard bursting into flames inside a shopping mall.

The primary culprit is believed to be the devices' lithium-ion batteries, which can overheat quickly, especially if overcharged or overworked.

As a result of these safety concerns, retailers have begun to pull the boards from store shelves. Amazon is not alone in removing some boards from its website. Overstock.com has stopped selling the devices altogether.

However, at press time some retailers -- including Sharper Image and Macy's -- were carrying the boards on their respective websites. Also, at least two brands, Jetson and Razor, were still for sale on Amazon.

Amazon did not respond to our request for further details.

Not on Board

The ubiquitous self-balancing two-wheel scooters rolled out earlier this year and quickly became a breakout phenomenon. Their popularity is due in part to manufacturers opting to dub them "hoverboards" -- an effort to borrow some steam from the fictional flying boards featured in Back to the Future II, which just happened to be set in November 2015.

As boards that actually fly or even hover are still mostly in the realm of fiction, these two-wheeled devices have filled the void.

Hoverboards have become one of this holiday season's "must have" devices as a result, and sales have been brisk even as safety concerns have continued to mount.

"While hoverboards can be fun, they also carry risks and hidden dangers as we've recently discovered," said Susan Schreiner, principal analyst at C4 Trends.

"The publicity of fires has certainly caught the attention of those considering giving a hoverboard for a holiday gift," she told the E-Commerce Times.

Battery on Board

Unlike past holiday gift crazes, the boards are not the brainchild of one company. Several firms -- mostly from China -- are marketing products that are very similar in design. These self-balancing two-wheeled scooters utilize a gyroscope that allows the rider to stay upright and even perform basic tricks.

In most cases, the problems associated with these devices aren't technically with the actual boards -- rather they're with the power source that drives the motor.

"Apparently there are battery issues," said Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous due to the heat they give off; if excessive, it can cause a fire. For this reason, commercial airlines already have banned lithium-ion batteries in checked luggage, and shipping companies have set guidelines on those that are transported in bulk by air.

Current demand for hoverboard products may have resulted in poor quality control, so some batteries may be a problem while others are reasonably safe. Past problems with lithium-ion batteries have led to product recalls and redesigns.

"In the PC business, when a bad battery batch or poor matchup between a battery and other components occurred, it's boiled down to throwing out the batch or re-engineering the product, which has taken a cycle or two," Kay told the E-Commerce Times.

Lack of Standards

The problem for consumers is that it can be almost impossible to know whether the battery may or may not be an issue. Many batteries may be pushed beyond what would be considered safe.

"There is no standard with these devices right now," warned Chris Byrne, content director for TimetoPlayMag.com.

"The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has started an investigation, but they have not set guidelines," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"Many products have warnings that say, 'not for kids weighing 50 pounds or more,' yet there is nothing like this for the hoverboards," he added.

As a result, the motor might work harder when older kids or adults ride the boards, which could cause the battery to overheat, resulting in a fire.

"I could suggest that people look at the guidelines -- but these don't exist, as there is no testing standard," Byrne noted.

Use at Your Own Risk

This holiday's must-have product could be product debacle of the year.

"The idea that this could smolder on a plane is worrisome, so that is going to hurt sales," suggested Byrne.

Because the issue appears to be with batteries -- not the actual product -- consumers may want to seek out more well-known and established brands if they are determined to hover around the holidays.

"It seems as if several brands have been identified as 'safe,' such as Razor and Jetson," said Schreiner.

However, for those with concerns, the best advice could be to "avoid the product until the industry gets this ironed out," suggested Kay. "Hold off -- at least this season."


Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.


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