The Season’s Hottest Gift: Flaming Hoverboards

Michael GrossmanDecember 14, 2015 5 minutes

UPDATE: On Monday, December 14, 2015, Amazon announced that it would stop selling hoverboards until manufacturers present more evidence that the toys are safe for consumers to use. In the spirit of every other news organization, we would like to credit our story, which Amazon probably never read, for being the reason that this product is no longer for sale.

Just in time for Christmas, the hottest holiday toy, so-called hoverboards, are living up to their billing, but not in the way one would expect. Within the last week, three of the toys, which are essentially hands-free Segways, have reportedly caught fire. Two of the incidents happened here in the United States, while a third occurred in the United Kingdom. As a consequence, the British government has already impounded at least 15,000 of the devices and New York has banned them. While much of the media attention has focused on the lower end models, powered by potentially shoddy lithium ion batteries, it seems that the product could have safety issues no matter how well it is manufactured, due to issues inherent in it's design.

The problems with hoverboards begin with their power supply, lithium ion batteries. The problems that have gained so much media attention right now seem to stem from charging issues with poorly made lithium ion batteries. According to sources, 88% of the hoverboards, which the British have impounded so far, contain defective or dangerous batteries. Some of them do not even have fuses to regulate the batteries charge. These batteries incorporate none of the safety features, which are standard in a consumer lithium ion battery. Others reportedly have cut, live wires, which could potentially short out the battery and lead to a fire. For products which range in price from $250-$900 dollars, you think you get a little more can put into their production.

From a legal standpoint, if what is being reported in the news is correct, it looks like companies that are using substandard batteries to power their hoverboards may be vulnerable to product liability claims, specifically under a design defect cause of action. The key component to a design defect claim as it relates to products with substandard batteries is that the products ignore safer available designs. The risks of lithium ion batteries have been known for years. That is why many products that use lithium ion batteries include fuses and shut-off mechanisms, though many more do not. At the very least, it is standard for lithium ion batteries to have mechanisms to prevent overcharging. These technologies have been around for at least a decade, if not more. Because of this, it would be quite difficult for a manufacturer whose sub-standard hoverboard batteries injure someone to argue that they were unaware that safer designs existed.

Manufacturers may attempt to argue that as a new product, hoverboards do not have safer potential designs, at this time. This argument would most likely fall flat on its face, because the lithium ion battery technology responsible for all of the reported issues so far is not a new technology. What really appears to be going on is that a moderately expensive toy has become really popular and bad actors are trying to get their piece of the action without regards for the safety of their customers. These bad actors will eventually be forced out of the marketplace through a combination of loss of consumer confidence in their brand, product liability lawsuits, and government regulation, but when even after they are old news, I do not think the dangers surrounding hoverboards will go with them.

While it is generally best to take a wait-and-see approach concerning the safety of a product when it hits the market, certain aspects of hoverboards strike me as unnecessarily dangerous, namely it is the perfect cocktail of a potentially dangerous power source and human ingenuity. While it might not be obvious at first, since manufacturers market the product for use on sidewalks and trails, anyone remotely familiar with the evolution of skateboarding or BMX culture can tell you that just because something is initially meant for one purpose does not mean that peoples' natural curiosity will not try to find new ways to use a device.

As with any other product, once the initial novelty wears off, peoples' imaginations will start to come up with new ways to keep the product interesting. For instance, with skateboards, just cruising down the road gets pretty dull, pretty quickly. So what do people do when they get bored with something? They invent ways to make it fun again, in the case of skateboards, doing tricks. You don't have to be a skateboarder or to have mastered Tony Hawk Pro Skater to know that as tricks get dull, people challenge themselves by doing ever more dangerous tricks. I'm not suggesting that skateboards are inherently dangerous, but doing tricks on them is. However, the difference between a skateboard and a hoverboard is that skateboards do not carry powerful batteries. When you cause catastrophic damage to a skateboard, you only end up with two shards of wood. When a hoverboard sustains massive structural damage, the result could a small, but intense fire.

With hoverboards and their lithium ion batteries, no matter how well you manufacture them, the potential to damage the batteries through easy-to-foresee use is something that you cannot engineer away. To see this danger in action, just look around Youtube for people intentionally damaging their cell phone batteries to see their old phones go up in flames. Given that punctured batteries can trigger thermal runaway in a matter of seconds, even the new generation of safety chips being developed for lithium ion batteries may not be helpful as it applies to hoverboards, since they merely mitigate fires that come from charging and power flow issues, not physical damage to the batteries.

Once people get bored with just cruising down the sidewalk and move on to doing tricks and jumps with their hoverboards perhaps it will only be a matter of time until the damage starts resulting in fires. Even if the manufacturers escape liability from this behavior, just the simple act of avoiding other people and obstacles means that crashes, some potentially serious, will become a part of operating hoverboards. Even with the best possible shielding, the batteries will still be subject to potential blunt force damage, which can trigger fires. When innocent bystanders start to get burned by flaming, damaged hoverboards, it will only be a matter of time before the government steps in to limit the number of places where people can use hoverboards. In the meantime, scores or even hundreds of people could potentially suffer significant burn injuries. Ultimately, while we accept fuel-source related fires as an acceptable risk in gas or lithium ion powered automobiles, it seems unlikely that either the public, or the law, would be as accommodating with a device that is essentially a toy.

In fact, we have a fairly long history of banning excessively dangerous toys in this country that are unnecessarily dangerous. I am not suggesting that hoverboards should be banned, just that the possibility that like, lawn darts and the Atomic Energy Laboratory (a toy from 1950 that came with real uranium), there may be no safe way to manufacture this device. We'll leave that for others to sort out. One thing that you don't need a lawyer or a law firm to tell you is that there are enough concerns with the two fires that have been reported already, the massive number of defects discovered by British authorities, and general issues with the designs of hoverboards that it one should be particularly cautious about giving them as a gift this Christmas.