A self-balancing scooter or self-balancing two-wheeled board, commonly referred to as a "hoverboard", is a type of portable, rechargeable battery-powered scooter. They typically consist of two wheels arranged side-by-side, with two small platforms between the wheels, on which the rider stands. The device is controlled by the rider's feet, standing on the built-in gyroscopic, sensored pads.
In 2014, several such devices appeared in China, and by 2015, they became widely popular in the United States, following numerous celebrity appearances with the device. There is no universally accepted name for the device, as its various product names are attributable to the companies which distribute them and not their manufacturers.
Shane Chen, an American businessman who founded the company Inventist, subsequently made an early claim of inventing the self-balancing scooter device. Chen started a Kickstarter for Hovertrax, in 2013. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Chen voiced his frustrations regarding patent rights in China. He claimed that Solowheel, his self-balancing unicycle, was copied by other manufacturers after it appeared in Happy Show, a Chinese television show. In August 2015, Mark Cuban announced plans to purchase the Hovertrax patents from Chen. Also in 2015, an American company, Inventist, claimed to hold patents and announced its intent to pursue litigation.
Segway Inc. has asserted that it holds patents which give it exclusive rights to sell self-balancing scooters in the United States. One of the manufacturers, Ninebot, acquired Segway, in April 2015, to resolve the dispute. The U.S. International Trade Commission issued an injunction against UPTECH, U.P. Technology, U.P. Robotics, FreeGo China, EcoBoomer, and Roboscooters. Robstep, INMOTION, Tech in the City, FreeGo settled with Segway.
The fast pace of the Chinese manufacturing industry makes it difficult to pinpoint which Chinese company was the first to manufacture the device. According to Wired's David Pierce, the device was likely invented as the "Smart S1" by Chic Robotics, a Chinese technology company founded in 2013, and associated with Zhejiang University. The Smart S1 was released in August 2014, and found success at the 2014 Canton Fair trade show. The company patented technologies associated with the board, but due to China's lax patent enforcement, the product was copied by several Chinese manufacturers.
As of June 2015, the board is made by several knockoff manufacturers in China – a pattern common in the country's technology and industrial sector. The copies vary greatly in price and quality, and may exhibit various defects. Most of the boards are produced in mass manufacturing factories in Shenzhen, China. Some newer boards have incorporated Bluetooth speakers, allowing the driver to play music.
The devices' increasing popularity in Western countries has been attributed, initially, to the wide array of celebrities who have been seen with various models of the product. These individuals include Justin Bieber, Jamie Foxx, Kendall Jenner, Chris Brown, Soulja Boy and Wiz Khalifa, among others. The founders of the American company, PhunkeeTree, encountered the board at the Hong Kong Electronics Show, in 2014 and became involved in its distribution, shortly thereafter. The company gave a board to Kendall Jenner, who posted a video of herself riding it, on Instagram. The video became a viral hit on social media, which led to other celebrities asking PhunkeeTree for free samples.
Etymology of "hoverboard"
The term "hoverboard" is used by some sources to describe these devices. However, as originally described in a 1967 science fiction novel by M. K. Joseph and popularized in the Back to the Future film franchise, hoverboard refers to a fictional skateboard-like device that floats above the ground. While the first trademark use of hoverboard was registered in 1996 as a collecting and trading game, its first use as a commercial name representing a wheeled scooter was in 1999.
But what is a real hoverboard? The prototypes unveiled by Lexus and ArxPax recently clearly satisfy the most important criteria for Back to the Future fans: they hover. Both rely on the repelling power of intense magnetic fields—generated by superconducting magnets cooled by liquid nitrogen—acting on a special magnetized track. So neither holds out the possibility that we’ll all be zooming around towns and cities on them anytime soon. On the other hand, the boards ridden by rapper Wiz Khalifa at Los Angeles airport recently (ridden, that is, until police wrestled him to the ground), and by a pilgrim performing the tawaf in Mecca are hoverboards in name only: the word is currently registered as a trademark in the US and the UK by manufacturers of a miniature, Segway-style, two-wheeled vehicle which stays firmly on the ground. Whether these devices take off (while not actually taking off) remains to be seen; certainly, they haven’t been round long enough to be included in the new OED entry, which restricts itself to boards that Marty McFly would recognize.
The word hoverboard has recently seen a dramatic surge in use, as a result of it being widely used to describe a kind of scooter, one which has two wheels attached to a small platform and is operated in a hands-free fashion. That it does not hover seems not to bother people as much as the fact that the devices are, at least in this early state of development, rather prone to catching on fire. [...] Although the word hoverboard did not enjoy widespread use until after this cinematic exposure, it did exist before this time. In 1986 it appeared in an issue of Texas Monthly magazine, in Stephan Harrington’s imagining of what Texas might look like in the year 2036 [...] But the earliest currently known use of the word, by a long shot, comes from a 1967 book by M. K. Joseph, The Hole in the Zero. This novel, subtitled A Story of the Future, falls into the genre of what might be called speculative science-fiction. [...] We should not be so surprised that the wheeled variety now so seemingly ubiquitous should have been granted its slightly imprecise name; when you come down to it, hoverboard is probably a catchier name than rollerboard and certainly preferable to fireboard.
Months after their introduction, there continues to be ongoing debate regarding the correct name for these devices. While they are now broadly referred to as hoverboards, with some support, opposition and even ambivalence for that name, the issue remains largely unsettled. The term "self-balancing electric scooter" also remains popular, if equally unofficial.
Complicating the issue, on April 30, 2016, the Guinness World Records officially recognized a completely different and flight capable device, as having set the record for the "farthest hoverboard flight". As Guinness certified, this "hoverboard" flew over a mile, at 7,388 feet (2,252 meters) distance and at a height of 165 feet (50 meters) above the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in the French coastal town of Sausset-les-Pins.
Many self-balancing scooters are powered by lithium-ion batteries. There have been reported instances of defective batteries, which have either short-circuited, or overheated, causing devices to self-ignite. Several injuries have been reported from board-related incidents, since September 2015. Spontaneously igniting boards have led to lawsuits in Louisiana and Alabama.
In the United Kingdom, authorities have expressed concerns with the boards, regarding possible faulty wiring. In Alperton, a London suburb, a 15-year-old boy was struck and fatally injured by a bus, while riding a board. House fires have occurred in London and Melbourne during charging, as well as 24 U.S. states.
In the Philippines, the Departments of Health and Trade and Industry issued a joint advisory cautioning the public against buying them, due to reports of injuries and "potential electrocution connected with its usage". The advisory also stated “as a precautionary measure, the DOH and DTI-Consumer Protection Group therefore advise parents against buying hoverboards for children under 14 years of age.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched an investigation into the safety of the device. On December 16, 2015, CPSC chairman, Elliot F. Kaye, released a written statement announcing the agency's investigation into "the configuration of the battery packs and compatibility with the chargers". On February 18, 2016, CPSC's Robert J. Howell released a public letter urging "manufacturers, importers, and retailers" to "make certain" that scooters they "import, manufacture, distribute, or sell in the United States comply with currently applicable voluntary safety standards, including all referenced standards and requirements contained in UL 2272 – Outline of Investigation for Electrical Systems for Self-balancing Scooters." Noting that "no hoverboard has passed the certification process at this time", (referring to the voluntary UL certification) Howell threatened the CPSC would detain or seize imported hoverboards and seek domestic recalls. Retailers including Toys R Us, Target, and Amazon.com pulled the product from their stores and websites.
The CPSC’s investigation, which led to the recall, determined more than 60 hoverboard fires in more than 20 states resulted in over $2 million in property damage.
The recall applies to 8 manufacturers — including the most popular ones, Swagway and Razor — as well as 2 retailers, Overstock.com and Boscov’s. Together the 2 companies produce some 15 different hoverboard models, including Airwalk, iMoto, Hovertrax, Powerboard, Wheeli, 2Wheelz, X Glider, and Orbit, among others.
Restrictions on use
Legal restrictions on the use of this device have been imposed in the United States and some countries. In New York City, the devices are banned under existing legislation; however, community advocates are working with lawmakers to legalize their use. In California, a law in effect as of 2016 places a speed limit on hoverboards and allows the devices in bike lanes on streets with low speed limits, but requires helmets and prohibits people younger than 16 from riding them in public.
In Mecca, it was banned after a video of a pilgrim, using it during hajj, was posted on social media and the rider was criticized. In Germany, as in the Netherlands, it is not allowed on public streets. In England and Wales, its use is only legal on private property, with the landowner’s permission. Riding it on public pavements (sidewalks) is banned under Section 72 of the Highway Act 1835, while riding it on public roads is banned under Section 170(2) of the Road Traffic Act, 1988. In Scotland, it is illegal to ride on public pavements (sidewalks) under the Roads Act, 1984. In Toronto, Canada bylaws do not allow motorized vehicles on sidewalks, with the exception of mobility scooters for people who cannot get around without them. In Australia, the state of New South Wales has specifically outlawed them on public streets, and is enforcing the law. Other states in Australia have yet to make a clear decision or announcement on legality and enforcement, and are relying on existing laws in place. They are free to use on private property. In Hong Kong, the Transport Department issued a statement saying that under the Road Traffic Ordinance, these devices are classified as motor vehicles, since they are mechanically propelled: "Registration and licence is required before any motor vehicle is used on the roads, including private roads. However, since the construction and operation of these motor-driven devices could pose a danger to the users themselves and other road users, they are not appropriate to use on roads, hence they cannot be registered and licensed."
Additionally, several airlines have prohibited the transportation of the boards, either in stored or carry-on luggage. Several universities have also imposed either outright prohibitions, or various restrictions, regarding the use of the device on their campuses. Others have issued formal warnings regarding the devices.
Major, notable distributors of these devices include: Airboard, Cyboard, Esway, Future Foot, Hovertrax, IO Hawk, Oxboard, Phunkee Duck, Segway, Soar Board and Swagway.
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- Media related to Self-balancing two-wheeled board at Wikimedia Commons