Are hoverboards safe? After recent bad rap, Hong Kong users think so, and vendors do too

Fires caused by defective battery chargers, and seizures over parts, have led to a scare about self-balancing electric scooters, but Hongkonger who sources them in China says they’re safe as long as you choose sellers in direct contact with manufacturers that are reliable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 December, 2015, 10:41pm

Hoverboards - self-balancing electric scooters, mostly made in China – have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.

Amid reports of batteries exploding while on charge and of substandard chargers, plugs and cables, British customs authorities have seize thousands; leading online retailer Amazon has told British buyers of defective models to throw them away, and another online retailer, Overstock, has ceased selling them on safety grounds and offered buyers refunds. This comes on top of restrictions on their public use in cities worldwide, including Hong Kong, on road safety grounds.

SEE ALSO: Airlines are banning hoverboards from flights after fires trigger safety concerns

So are all hoverboards unsafe, and will the surge in their popularity fizzle out amid a blizzard of negative publicity?

Vendors in the biggest overseas market, the United States, where they sell for as little as US$300, don’t see sales slowing, and a Hong Kong scooter fan who sources hoverboards for friends is confident of their safety.

Jay, as the Hongkonger asked to be called, considers hoverboards a great invention and a fun way for people to get around. But he warns it is dangerous to order any online without knowing about the supplier.

“The standard of these products on [popular online shopping site] Taobao varies a great deal. It really depends on the supplier,” says Jay, who sources one- and two-wheeled scooters in Shenzhen. “And they run on batteries that have high voltage so, yes, you don’t want to run tests on [a battery] at home by yourself.”

His advice is to seek out sellers who have direct contact with manufacturers who are reliable. “My friend and I go back to the same seller because the quality of their products has been consistently good,” he said.

It is illegal to ride hoverboards on public roads in Hong Kong. The Transport Department has classified them as motor vehicles, and motor vehicles require registering and licensing for use on public roads; however, it says it will not license hoverboards on road safety grounds. In November, a hoverboard burst into flames in a public housing flat while on charge, prompting concerns its battery may have been faulty. New South Wales in Australia has taken the same stance as Hong Kong, and the boards are also banned in New York City.

SEE ALSO: ‘Hoverboard’ electric scooter starts fire in Hong Kong flat

Still, the Hong Kong ban hasn’t stopped people riding hoverboards on private ground or in public in more remote parts of the city. Nor have the growing concerns over the safety of the scooters stopped the Hong Kong Trade Development Council advertising them on its website. The trade promotion body stresses that the companies it features are verified.

It is only this year that hoverboards have become relatively affordable, and they have seen a surge in popularity in the United States despite authorities’ doubts about the safety of riders, other road and footpath users, and their fire safety. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission said it had received 11 reports of hoverboard fires in 10 states.

However, Tony Le, who has opened a store in the US state of New Jersey to sell hoverboards, is unfazed. “I got on and I learned in 10 minutes,” said Le, who saw his first hoverboards at a trade fair in China.

Hoverboards are among the top items on wish lists for children looking for a bit of adventure. But some also see a potential to fulfil the urban transportation role envisioned by Segway, which failed, as consumers shunned its bulky, expensive devices.

“I think of this as revolutionary. It’s so easy to use,” Le said. “This is something that will be in the trunk of everyone’s car.”

Michael Tran, co-owner of the Ooverboard rental and sales outlet in Venice Beach, California, said the devices were catching on fast. “Demand is very high and supply is low,” he said.

An important feature, Tran said, was that they are intuitive to use. “It acts like an extension of your leg. It’s not like a vehicle,” he said.

Hoverboards have received an added boost from celebrities ranging from Chris Brown to Justin Bieber, who is seen riding one in a YouTube video.

Le said the safety issues reported so far had been linked to off-brand devices with substandard batteries and components, and that reputable brands had passed safety checks.

Patent disputes have also arisen over the technology used in the boards. Segway, which is now owned by a Chinese firm and produces its own version, filed suit against one rival, and US manufacturer Razor has sued another competitor.

Some argue the hoverboard is a wave that cannot be held back. Le, who talks frequently with manufacturers, says he believes at least one million hoverboards have been sold so far this year.

Razor, the manufacturer, says only that “this is going to be one of the hottest items of the season”.