It's a dark time for hoverboard lovers right now. After seizing the 'looking like a dickhead in public' crown for 2015, with appropriate celebrity backing from such dickheads as Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa, they have now fallen on harder times. They've recently been banned from the streets in the UK and New York, most airlines won't let you take them on board, and because they keep setting on fire and randomly exploding, Amazon have started to pull them from their store, pending a 'safety review.'
It looks like the game might finally be up for those mighty LED-lit chariots of fire we affectionately call hoverboards. Wanting to find out a bit more, I spoke to Ben Morling, hoverboard-hater and managing director of leading Segway operators 'Segway Unleashed,' to find out more.
A teenage boy tragically died last week after he was hit by a bus while riding a hoverboard. Did you hear about it?
Ben Morling: I heard it on the radio on Friday evening and it didn't surprise me at all. Obviously it's massively sad and tragic, as any death is, but… unsurprising, I would say. I've seen people fall off them in your funny YouTube, Vine type videos.
What do you think of hoverboards in general?
They're not massively stable; you're not holding on to anything. I just talked to my wife about it and I said it's kind of like being on a pair of rollerskates, but then it's not really like being on a pair of rollerskates, because you've got eight wheels and you've got the ability to use your legs to give yourself stability if you needed it. These things are rigid, so if you compare them to a real Segway, they're completely different. It's essentially a toy.
Do you think people are unsafe on hoverboards?
I think they're unsafe, it's easy to fall off, there's no training. Now, I don't know whether you drive a car or not, Tom?
Well, when you drive a car and see a little kid on the pavement and you see them ride a bike or a scooter or whatever, you think "Christ, don't fall off the pavement, don't fall off the pavement," and I give them a wide berth. With these hoverboardy things, because they're quite rare, people might slow down to look at them, which creates an added danger, like if you saw a billboard of a half-naked woman.
If those things go from underneath you, you're only going to end up one way, and that's flat on your face or flat on your backside. With a Segway, it's a serious piece on engineering, not some mass-produced rubbish from China. Now if the lad was on a Segway, although this is complete conjecture, if the lad was on a Segway I don't think he would've spun around and fallen off.
Apparently there have been a few cases of fires in people's houses when hoverboards have been left to charge.
I mean I've seen at least two, if not three. Me and the guys at Segway UK, who are the official Segway importers and distributors in the UK, were discussing it earlier and I don't think we've ever heard of a Segway setting on fire. If there's a bandwagon to jump on, you know that someone somewhere is making [hoverboards] cheaply and cheaply usually means unsafely. You don't know what the hell you're buying.
So why do you think hoverboards are so popular?
Well because it's the fad of the year, and because they're cheap. I'm sure there are pop stars and people in the media on them, which creates hype for it. And people are sticking Bluetooth speakers on them, and are creating all these little whistles and bells. They're a little different, a little funky, they're this year's fad. Now I don't know how old you are, Tom?
Well, about 15 years ago, there was a fad for these things called mini-motorbikes, and people were buying them for their kids. You may as well of bought your child a Fireblade and said "There you go son, there's the keys, crack on," because they were exactly the same as an actual motorbike. Kids were driving around running into things and hurting themselves but Mom and Dad thought because it's got the word 'mini' in front of it that it's a toy. It's the same as a hoverboard—people buy them because they think it's a toy.
Why would you choose a Segway over a hoverboard?
Everyone who goes on a Segway loves it. There's a real buzz for being on that type of vehicle. They're fairly easy to ride and when you're whizzing around, you get an adrenaline rush, it's such a buzz. There's a sense of freedom, of movement, of being able to move around in a really unique way. A Segway is classed as a vehicle, it ticks the boxes of being a vehicle. It's got 15 years of technical experience behind it, made of metal, and you can feel the quality of a Segway when you get on it. One of the things about hoverboards is that when they have no insurance or support network. With a Segway, when it breaks, you can get it fixed legitimately and even upgrade them ever so slightly. Like in America, they attach gun racks to them and take them out hunting, believe it or not.
Amazon have started to pull hoverboards from the site—"for the time being, we are not recommending any hoverboards until they are proven to be safe."
I didn't know that. There could be a number or reasons. Now, I think Segway called a lot of these companies and said they would sue them if they advertised them as hoverboard Segways, so that could be a reason, but also maybe Amazon are just being conscientious suppliers. I was speaking to a woman the other day who was asking to buy one, and I said buy them from a reputable shop, and she said she went into John Lewis and they didn't have them there, and I thought, 'Well that speaks volumes.' John Lewis is a quality retailer, I mean I love John Lewis. They wouldn't sell them because they're dangerous, they break, and they don't want a load of angry customers coming to them after Christmas.
What do you think should happen to hoverboards?
I think they have a place, but I think they need to be recognized as what they are, which is a toy. I don't think they should be banned because they're progressive. A hundred years ago, we learned to fly, and now we've put a man on the moon and Richard Branson is skimming the Earth in a spaceship and flying to New York in an hour and a half. Hoverboards are progressive and I think that's fantastic. But I think people and the retailers need to be educated. I also think that they need to be monitored, if people are dying and getting hurt on them then the authorities need to step in on them and say enough's enough, ban them.
It's a strange one, because it's one of those excellent products that doesn't fit into society—like society isn't ready for them yet. You also need to look whose buying them, is it you and me, responsible adults, using them to get to work every day? No, it's kids, using them to show off to their mates. I don't think they're being educated about it. Technology-wise, as an idea and a concept, brilliant—it's about personal freedom, transport, and movement. Now, do I think they're safe? Hell no. Would I ride one? No way. Are they more unsafe than a Segway? Absolutely. So it's dangerous. I say stick to walking mate!
Yeah, I think I will. Cheers, Ben.
Follow Tom on Twitter.