From fad to flames: The rise and fall of the hoverboard industry

After colleges began regulating them, public entities banned them and retailers pulled them from shelves, one of 2015’s biggest fads has faded.

Hands-free motorized scooters, or “hoverboards,” seemed to be all the rage during the holiday season, but safety concerns have created a string of regulations that has slowed the business down dramatically.

“A big chunk of people buying them were college students,” said Jordan Masters, a hoverboard salesman with VBoards, a store based in New York. “When they’re banning them at college campuses, and you can’t take them to the mall, you can’t take them to this place. It’s even hard for little kids to because you know parents see that as a hazard, and they don’t want to put their kids in a situation where they could fall and get hurt.”

Masters, who is also a hockey player at Arizona State, got into the industry last summer with his family when they noticed the trend.

The devices began to pop up in the mainstream media. Actor and singer Jamie Foxx appeared on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” on one. Other celebrities followed suit, posting on Instagram and Vine while riding them. During the 2015 NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers player J.R. Smith rolled into a game on one.

The devices spread like wildfire. Masters said it was common to sell at least 30 devices per week for more than $650 each. However, cheaper alternatives saturated the market, which is when Masters said the problems began.

PhunkeeDuck and TechDrift offered boards upwards of $1,000. The more expensive the device, the longer the battery generally lasted and the more sturdy the device was built, Masters said. Cheaper alternatives proved tempting but dangerous, Masters said, and reports boards combusting began to rise.

In December 2015, every major airline in the U.S. banned the devices because of fire hazards caused by lithium-ion batteries. Universities followed suit. Some banned students from keeping them in dorms, and others outlawed the devices anywhere on campus. Amazon has discontinued selling them and offered full refunds for the boards.

From Dec. 1 to Feb. 17, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received reports from consumers in 24 states of 52 hoverboard fires that caused more than $2 million in property damage, “including the destruction of two homes and an automobile,” according to the group.

ASU was the last major university in the state to issue a regulation on hoverboards. In March, it outlawed the devices on university property because of the fire risks.

“It’s something we’ve been looking into for a while,” said Nicole Franks, a spokeswoman for ASU police. “We did it as fast as we could. We wanted to make the right decision for the university community, so we want to look at all the facts and figures before we made the decisions.”

Franks said the university had not yet encountered specific cases about hoverboards, but “wanted to get in front of the issue.”

Grand Canyon University has a campuswide ban as well. Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona restrict students from riding hoverboards indoors and in dorms.

Masters said he understands the safety concerns, but said people should consider the quality of the devices they purchase.

“If you buy one that’s $50 to $100, it’s like anything else,” he said. “You can go buy something cheap, and you’re going to get what you paid for. When (people) bought those cheap models like that, I guess some of them were exploding.”

Masters said he never received complaints about devices he sold.

Franks said the university would consider lifting the ban if companies eliminate the safety concerns about the devices.

“Anything written in university policy can be revised,” she said. “Say in a year or two, there are better safety measures for hoverboards, and they are no longer a fire risk, that can be revisited and that can be reversed.”

Six months ago, malls were littered with kiosks. At Scottsdale Fashion Square, one security guard said hoverboards were banned from the mall because it was too much of a safety risk. Futurex, a store that sold hoverboards in Scottsdale, claims to have relocated, but the address on its website leads to an empty store.

Until the manufacturers address the safety concerns, Masters expects business to continue to remain slow.

“I’m not mad at anyone,” Masters said. “It’s a safety reason, and it’s understandable.”