What you need to know about real-life hoverboards

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What you need to know about real-life hoverboards

The hoverboard.

Following in the footsteps of Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, and the pet rock, it’s become the latest in a line of all-time popular Christmas presents. Celebrities love them. Kids love them.

People concerned with health and safety standards? Not so much.

You may have seen on the news (or YouTube) that hoverboards are exploding. Literally going up in flames. How dangerous are they? And if your kid is asking Santa for a hoverboard, what should you do?

Wait, hoverboards are real?!

Let’s get this out of the way: hoverboards are a lie.

They don’t hover, and honestly they aren’t even really boards.

Hoverboards as we know them in 2015, and not as we knew them in Back to the Future II’s 2015, are self-balancing scooters, not gravity-defying transports.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re still kind of neat. They use gyroscopics and sensors to relay your body position and speed in order to keep their balance. I won’t pretend to understand the specifics, but go here if you want a good, basic technical breakdown.

Remember when Segways were a thing for a minute? Think of hoverboards like those, minus the handlebars. Which makes them...more cool? Less cool? Just as cool? It’s hard to say, but they made a big splash, as celebrities from John Legend to JR Smith to Justin Bieber were shown to be big fans, or at least posted pictures of themselves on Instagram riding hoverboards.

Regardless of their celebrity cachet, the correct way to write this post would be using "hoverboard," in quotes, every time, but since it’s become the colloquial term for these devices, we’ll just roll with it (pun intended).

Why do hoverboards explode?

They probably shouldn’t do that, right?

Sadly, they are. This family, who got a hoverboard for their son, lost their house when the toy began sparking while it was charging. And they’re far from the only case.

Here’s one happening in real time:

So what’s the deal? Why are hoverboards doing their best Human Torch impressions?

It comes down to the batteries.

Hoverboards use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. That’s not uncommon in electronics; phones, computers, and other devices use the same types of batteries. But unlike your laptop – which have had their own share of battery-related recalls – hoverboards are being ridden, kicked, bumped, and so on. That puts a lot of stress on batteries that are already being cheaply made in order to be massed produced.

That combination results in...well, explosions.

Chargers can also be a problem, as they can overcharge batteries – even batteries that aren’t defective – leading to the same results.

These dangers have lead to real consequences for the hoverboard industry. Amazon pulled hoverboards from their site for a time. Overstock did the same. And even after Amazon began to relist some models, they were telling customers to toss them.

Also on the anti-hoverboard bandwagon? Major airlines, who won’t allow hoverboards on flights, and the USPS, who limited the shipping of hoverboard to ground methods.

Finally, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission is launching an investigation into hoverboards.

Needless to say, it’s been a tough year for hoverboards.

But I want a not-exploding hoverboard!

You’re clearly a savvy consumer. If you don’t want your electronics going up in flames, you’re in luck! You can buy a hoverboard that isn’t a handlebarless death trap. Or at least one that’s less likely to be a handlebarless death trap.

There’s usually nothing wrong with buying cheap. Generic products at the grocery store are often the same as name brand products and can save you a lot of money. But when it comes to hoverboards, you shouldn’t be afraid to splurge.

The general rule of thumb developed over the past few months is that if a hoverboard is under $300, take a pass. It was made to be cheap and likely has less stringent quality standards.

Instead, aim for name brands that are a little more pricey. IO Hawk and Phunkeeduck are two of the bigger names and have hoverboard models that come in at over $1,000. It’s expensive, but no one said the future would come cheap. And also, they probably won’t burn down your home.

You should also make sure whatever hoverboard you get has some safety certifications. UL-certified chargers or batteries are less likely to be faulty, and UL certifications have the backing of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, providing some peace of mind.

Unfortunately there’s no way to get a hoverboard that definitely won’t combust. Buying higher-end, well-made models from known brands that are certified is a start, but consider this: Swagway is one of the brands recommended by the reputable The Wirecutter, and some of their hoverboards exploded anyway. It’s still mostly a crapshoot.

The only way to 100% guarantee that your hoverboard won’t explode?

Wait and put it on next year’s Christmas list. Hopefully the kinks will be worked out by then.

Image: Ben Larcey