Hoverboards, The Great Fail of the Consumer Protection Agency?

hoverboard caught on fireSometimes when a consumer product becomes popular there are unexpected consequences to its success, use cases that customers find that weren’t part of the planning or testing phase of the manufacturer.

Rarely, though, does an entire category of products end up a spectacular fail, but that’s just what’s happened in the last 45 days with¬†hoverboards, self-balancing gadgets that you stand on and control by leaning forward, backward, left or right. Kind of like a Segway, but without the post and hand controls.

They’re small, reasonably inexpensive (about $700-$1000) and look like a lot of fun. They were also one of the hottest toys during the Christmas 2015 buying season.

Problem is, they also have a tendency to catch on fire.

This danger flared up so quickly that for a period of time, Amazon pulled all hoverboards from its Web site in mid-December, afraid of liability issues if it sold devices that had the potential to hurt customers. The best made of the products have been restored to the popular online store, but the problem lingers.

Indeed, as I’m poised to head to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a few days, my confirmation email for my flight from Southwest Airlines included this warning:

no hoverboards on southwest airlines plane flights

I’ve never seen anything like it and don’t recall such a sweeping ban on a particular product by the airlines for anything in the past, even firearms.

At the Consumer Product Safety Commission they’re working overtime to try and figure out what’s causing the devices to burst into flame, how widespread an issue it is, and whether to recall or stop allow the sale of any hoverboards. A mid-December statement by CPSC director Elliot F. Kaye clarifies:

Consumers want and deserve answers about the safety of hoverboards. I have directed agency staff to work non-stop to find the root cause of the fire hazard, how much of a risk it might present, and to provide consumers with answers as soon as possible. The challenge is to move quickly but also thoroughly and carefully to find out why certain hoverboards caught fire. Every consumer who is riding a hoverboard, who purchased one to give as a gift during the holidays, or who is thinking about buying one deserves to know if there is a safety defect.

Indeed. There’s a very curious question about how this product went so quickly from introduction to withdrawn due to fire hazard, a cautionary tale of the limits of safety regulation and public safety. Sure seems to me that it got onto the market too quickly, as the stories of unexpected injuries and fires attests.

In this modern era of Chinese factories duplicating manufacturing processes within days, however, hoverboards are being sold by dozens if not hundreds of vendors and as the Sydney Morning Herald says, “the device is displaying a cockroach-like ability to survive attack.” Odds are they’ll work out all the bugs and as long as you go with a major brand, you’ll be able to pick up a safe device within a few months.

Meanwhile, seems like walking might just remain in vogue for a few more months yet as there haven’t been any recent reports of shoes catching on fire…

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