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To kill a hoverboard

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I was going to be get a hoverboard for Christmas that was supposed to spare me the plight of walking across campus. So imagine my dismay when I found out that no company was willing to ship a hoverboard due to liability as a result of disastrous, spontaneous combustion of the cheap batteries. Not only would I not get my hoverboard, but they are dangerous, so it’s unlikely I’ll be getting one in the future.

So far, hoverboards have exploded while sitting in mall kiosks and while being ridden, and have burned down homes. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched several fire investigations, and UK seized more than 15,000 hoverboards. This is all because, pursuit of profits, retailers sell at egregious prices and neglect consumer safety, which is unacceptable. Thanks to such practices, I still have to walk 10 feet from Hamilton Library to Paradise Palms.

Why hoverboards explode

Hoverboards work by using lithium-ion batteries, two gyroscopes and sensors to detect the rider’s movements and adjust accordingly. Jay Whitacre, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University explained to Wired why lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries can catch fire.

“If there is an inherent defect in the cell, it will go off at some point. Small defects in the manufacturing or materials stream lead to the plus/minus sides of the batteries being shorted with each other after a small amount of use. When this happens, especially when the batteries are charged, a lot of heat is generated inside the cells and this leads to electrolyte boiling, the rupture of the cell casing and then a significant fire,” Whitacre said.

This has to do with the quality of batteries produced in Chinese factories. Whitacre said that combustion is less likely with Samsung or LG manufactured batteries. Li-on batteries are preferred in many modern electronics, because they’re small, cheap and pack a punch in terms of the energy they contain. They’re found in smartphones, laptops, and many other gadgets. The difference is that the batteries found in smartphones and laptops are higher quality than those in hoverboards and are less likely to exhibit the same explosive behavior, which is why our iPhones and Androids don’t burn us alive.

Had hoverboard companies taken the same care that other electronics companies do to ensure safe products and batteries, this mess could have been avoided.

Sellers’ part

Hoverboards shouldn’t have made it to the market with flammable, defective batteries. Even if wholesalers and distributors failed at their jobs, the actual sellers who went direct to consumers (local stores, kiosks and online retailers) could have demanded better. This would have incurred additional costs, but that doesn’t seem like much next to the injuries and damage to property that cutting corners have led to.

Given the prominence of recent incidents with hoverboards, if enough people had tested them for a prolonged period of time, there should have been at least one incident. For something with a manufacturing defect as obvious as the one with the cheap Li-on batteries, sellers were not placing product quality as a priority. It is a gross and irresponsible oversight that hoverboards were brought to market without being thoroughly vetted.

Amazon offered full refunds for hoverboards in the UK and urged users to dispose of their hoverboards.

"We regret the inconvenience this may cause you but trust you will understand that your safety and satisfaction is our highest priority," Amazon stated in an email aquired by BBC.

If safety had been the highest priority ahead of time, not only would the company not have to field complaints and losses, but consumers would not have had to go through the hassle of pursuing refunds.

A Target spokesperson also confirmed to Mashable that they are quietly pulling hoverboards from their website (and shelves).

While retailers are losing money, the ultimate losers are the consumers, who have been placed at risk for the sake of profit and have to deal with the disappointment and hassle of trying to get their money back.

Lessons learned

An anonymous source told Ka Leo recently that his boss had him remove and clean logo stickers from hoverboards in order to make his company look like they had a unique brand, but in reality they were peddling a generic board of dubious origins. When asked where this board came from, he said he had “no idea."

A quick Google search will show numerous retailers selling nearly-identical products at varying prices, with various features and “warranties." However, consumers often have to jump through several hoops when looking for refunds or exchanges, and the process is tedious. The fact that Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba sells hoverboards for prices that are a fraction of the price charged by American sellers should raise red flags.

Businesses looking to capitalize on a hot ticket item have corrupted what was otherwise a cool thing that many people just wanted to enjoy. Let this be a lesson in how to kill what was a great product in theory  with a combustible product and the instillation of fear in a population that would have welcomed it with open arms and wallets.

Now we have to wait for the Lexus Hoverboard — which actually hovers, but only over metallic surfaces — can handle plebeian ground.