A Weird New Segway Is Finally Making Hoverboards Legit
Remember hoverboards? Last year was pretty big for the two-wheeled self-balancing scooters, which (sort of) made good on Back To The Future‘s promise of the future of transportation. Hoverboards were under the feet of seemingly every athlete, celebrity, Vine star, and tech journalist on the planet. Amazon and Alibaba’s pages were filled with hoverboards. And then, as was bound to happen in this slightly on-the-nose Icarus tale, the hoverboard flew a little too close to the sun. And caught fire.
For a while there, it looked like it was curtains for the hoverboard. Amazon, Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, and others stopped selling them. Airlines, airports, and public spaces everywhere stopped allowing them. The US Trade Commission banned the import of “certain personal transporters,” and then the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled more than half a million hoverboards, citing “at least 99 incident reports of the battery packs in self-balancing scooters/hoverboards overheating, sparking, smoking, catching fire and/or exploding, including reports of burn injuries and property damage.” That is, uh, hard to come back from.
Ken Boyce, a principal engineer at Chicago-based UL (which used to stand for Underwriters Laboratories, but like MTV or the SATs is now just an acronym-free set of letters), spent part of last year watching the hoverboard market intently. UL is the company whose certification you’ll find on almost any gadget, appliance, or powered device you own. It’s among the most important safety organizations in the industry, and has relationships with retailers, manufacturers, and even companies that deal with logistics and transport of these devices. “We saw all of those areas really go red in late 2015,” Boyce says. “They were like, whoa, help us with this, we don’t know what to do.”
UL has been doing research into lithium-ion batteries for a long time. The battery is the most unstable, unsafe part of nearly every gadget, and UL has worked to learn as much as it can about the chemistry and manufacturing of these batteries so it can ensure their safety. Which came in handy with hoverboards. Faulty, cheaply-made batteries were the reason they kept exploding. The team at UL worked quickly, sensing the literal life-and-death stakes at hand, and came up with a standard for hoverboard safety in a matter of a few weeks.
The standard, UL-2272, now defines a “safe” hoverboard. Battery and power regulation are the two most important parts of the standard, Boyce says, but there are also a set of requirements around the physical construction of the product. Boyce and his team came up with tests for environmental effects, and even worked to make sure manufacturers were delivering smart instructions for how to safely use their product. None of these factors had mattered to anyone before: many hoverboards came with hastily translated instructions and warnings, or with none at all. Boards were fragile and breakable—the only thing that mattered was their price. UL’s hope was to make the industry take a deep breath, and build something that would actually last.
Segway was one of the partners UL worked with on the standard, and its new MiniPro hoverboard is one of the first certified products. But Segway’s not just jumping on the trend: it’s been working on its smaller new device for a few years. The first Segway came out 15 years ago, and the goal with the MiniPro was to “bring that innovation into a smaller package,” says Brian Buccella, the company’s vice president of business development and marketing. He says the original, handlebar Segway is focused on the commercial market—security guards, tour guides, and the like. “We wanted to have a product that the average person could use, that had a price point under $1,000.” The MiniPro is essentially a Segway minus the handlebars, instead using a kneepad to steer around.
Making the MiniPro safe was key for Segway, but the company has some experience doing so. Buccella describes crush tests, connectivity tests, brake tests, mechanical and electrical tests, and more. “You can imagine going through those tests,” he says, “and how reliable that product would be. Think about this: those tests were not performed on any other product on the market before this.”
I’ve ridden a lot of hoverboards, and riding the Segway feels markedly different from the rest of them. It’s sturdy and consistent: the 28-pound machine moves smoothly, turns crisply, and never bucks like a bronco when you’re on it. It has pneumatic tires, so it can handle bumpy sidewalks and even functionally move across grass. It also hasn’t caught fire, but neither has the (maybe now contraband) “Scoot Fun” hoverboard in my apartment, so maybe I’m one of the lucky ones. The knee-controlled steering feels a little odd, like you’re skiing on wheels, but it works really well. The MiniPro feels like a completed, thought-out device, and while the $1,000 price tag seems high at first, lots of people spent more and got less from the first round of hoverboards.
When you first hop on the MiniPro, it beeps at you to download the companion app for your phone. The app gives you stats, lets you control the device remotely, and forces you to go through a tutorial before you can unlock the MiniPro’s true top speed. The app itself is kind of a buggy mess, but it’s at least an indication that Segway’s trying to thoughtfully introduce people to these new devices. Even once you’re good at it, there are safety checks everywhere: the MiniPro beeps if you’re going too fast, and will start to push subtly against you, trying to slow you down to a normal speed.
The MiniPro is emblematic of the new, safer breed of hoverboard, in that it wants to move past being a Tickle-Me-Elmo-level fad toy, and into something more like the future of transportation. “There’s this whole re-imagining of the way people move around cities,” says Carlton Calvin, founder and CEO of Razor, whose Hovertrax hoverboard is also UL-2272 certified. “Hovertrax is going to be part of that. But on the other hand,” he quickly adds, “it’s insanely fun to ride.”
Hoverboards are making another takeover attempt, just more cautiously this time. UL has also certified Swagway, China’s Chic Technologies, and a couple dozen other hoverboards. Amazon and Best Buy are slowly starting to sell the devices again. And now, after a year of fads and fires, these companies can get back to the real work: making these things fly so we can really get our Marty McFly on.
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