Hoverboards are a fantastic mobility tool. They allow you to effortlessly traverse urban environments. The most genius part of them is how they are controlled – with slight movements of your body you can steer anywhere. It very quickly becomes instinct. The history of hoverboards is no less interesting than the technology behind hoverboards. Have you ever wondered how these fantastic things became a reality? Why it took so long for them to be made, and why they were everywhere as soon as they were available? Let’s look in-depth at the history of hoverboards and how they came to be.
The idea behind hoverboards
Here’s something which confuses many people – why are they called hoverboards? When one thinks of hoverboards, one expects them to actually hover. The reason they are called hoverboards is Back to the Future II.
Back to the Future II
You cannot discuss where the idea for hoverboards came from without mentioning ‘Back to the Future II’. How important is it to the history of hoverboards, you ask? It literally invented the ‘’hoverboard’’ name. If you were young when the movie came out you, will understand why it was a big deal. If you are on the younger side it will be a bit harder to understand. Back to the Future was one of the biggest movies of its generation, so when a sequel was announced people were anticipating it highly.
Marty McFly is a legendary movie character. He was considered to be the epitome of cool back then, and every kid wanted to dress like him and buy his lunchbox. This is why hoverboards became so popular as an idea. In the movie scene Marty McFly takes a girl’s hoverboard and uses it to evade some bullies in the future.
What is very interesting about this scene is how it parallels the real development of hoverboards. The scene shows Marty McFly running when he sees a little girl on a hoverboard which has a steering handle on it. It looks just like a Segway scooter. He removes the steering handle and uses the hoverboard without using his hands to control the thing. The scene is very entertaining and it was also a display of cutting-edge visual effects technology of that era. In real life too hoverboards didn’t become popular until the Segway steering handle was ditched for a hands-free experience.
So all the people who were kids in the 80s remember the hoverboard as one of the coolest things they saw in a movie as a kid. Every kid back then, us included, wanted to have a hoverboard and was disappointed that hoverboards weren’t a reality. That is where the ‘hoverboard’ name comes from.
While calling a device that doesn’t hover a ‘hoverboard’ may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you watch Back to the Future II. While hoverboards in reality may not hover like they do in the movie scene, they are controlled exactly like they are shown in the move. In the movie Marty McFly simply leans to wherever he wants to move and the hoverboard obeys his commands. You can take a video of someone on a hoverboard and cut the bottom part with wheels out of the frame and it will look exactly like the Back to the Future II scene.
Segway – the precursor to Segway
Revolutionizing personal mobility is not a new idea – many companies have tried to do what hoverboards ended up doing successfully. The biggest name here would be Segway. Anyone who was an adult when Segway was announced will remember how big of a deal it was. People were talking about how Segway was going to revolutionize the world. There were thought pieces that whole cities will be remodeled after Segway users, because they were such a superior way of moving around. People thought that we would all be on Segway scooters within a few years of them launching.
That future, thankfully, never came to be. Now, you may be wondering what Segway scooters have to do with hoverboards. The answer is everything – we will go into a bit more detail further on. There are many reasons that Segway failed. One of the biggest was the cost. You can buy a hoverboard just to try it out for a few days. They aren’t that expensive, so even if you end up disliking them you wouldn’t worry too much. Segway products, on the other hand, cost thousands of dollars. Buying a Segway was a significant investment, and most people were not willing to make such an investment on a product that was yet to prove itself.
Another problem was image. You simply couldn’t look cool while riding a Segway. Segway immediately became a joke after its reveal. Once people realized that this was the product that was being hyped for months they were ruthless. Every comedy show, late night talk show, internet comedian – everyone made jokes about Segway scooters and how stupid people looked on them. Segway is now a footnote… in the history of hoverboards.
Segway’s biggest impact is the creation of hoverboards. Segways weren’t just important because they gave us the idea for hoverboards, they directly gave us the technology for hoverboards as well. Segways weren’t very good looking and the product may have failed to generate enough sales, but it was still a very well-made product. A Segway is basically a hoverboard with additional features. The handlebars aren’t just there to help you grab on to something – they also help with the self-balancing feature. On a hoverboard if you lean back you will fall. On a Segway you can lean back without worrying too much – the Segway will try to maintain balance. Hoverboards are self-balancing as well, but the handle and other additional devices give Segway an edge in this regard.
The bottom part of a hoverboard is almost exactly like a Segway. It works the same way (though additional controls are present in the handle). It is fair to say that hoverboards, as they exist now, would not exist if it weren’t for Segways. Hoverboards were made by taking the self-balancing technology from Segway devices and improving upon it.
Hovertrax – the first hoverboard?
One of the first ‘complete’ examples you will find of hoverboards is Hovertrax. Hovertrax was on Kickstarter all the way back in 2013. As expected, it was an instant sensation. Everyone who viewed it wanted in on it. The Kickstarter campaign ended up getting twice as much money as they had aimed for. The Kickstarter got a lot of media coverage, and rightly so.
When you look at the Kickstarter page of hoverboard you realize how revolutionary it was, because even many of the latest hoverboards are no different than what Hovertrax invented. Sure, they may have better batteries now, since battery technology has improved so much, and there have been a few slight improvements, but overall most modern hoverboards are very similar to Hovertrax.
Now, you may be wondering why you’ve never heard the Hovertrax name before. If the product which they made was so influential then why didn’t they reap the success they sowed? Why are most hoverboards available in the market by companies other than Hovertrax? These are all very interesting questions with even more interesting answers.
See, hoverboards didn’t become a huge thing until 2015. That is when we started seeing hoverboards truly enter the market. 2016 was unquestionably the year of the hoverboard. It was the hottest selling item for Christmas. You would see people on the sidewalks riding hoverboards. Many people uploaded videos of them trying out hoverboards online. What happened in 2016, why did Hovertrax not make noise even though it launched two years before in 2014?
The answer is very simple – the two biggest factors were cost, and China’s patent-related problems. The cost thing was the first major obstacle which stopped Hovertrax from becoming a major thing. If you wanted to buy a Hovertrax hoverboard, you would have to pay more than a thousand dollars. That was their starting price. They weren’t trying to rip people off – they had put in a lot of engineering work into the device.
This is a problem for most first movers. Hovertrax was run by people who had spent years coming up with the idea for hoverboards, designing them, testing them, and finally getting them manufactured. All of these things are very expensive to do and they take a lot of time as well. When the product was launched, Hovertrax had to set a price which would allow them to make back the money they spent on product development, research, and much more. Hovertrax had also focused a lot on quality and the finish on their product was superior to even most of the hoverboards available in the market today. However the price ensured that only enthusiasts would end up buying the product.
So while Hovertrax wasn’t making as much noise as it should, it was still a somewhat successful product. You would see pictures and videos of celebrities using hoverboards. The expensive price meant that the product was seen as a status symbol, which meant that every kid who saw one wanted one. That wasn’t going to happen until the end of 2015.
China enters the scene
Before we get into this section there is something that we would like to stress – Chinese culture is very different from the rest of the world when it comes to business. Most of the world follows patent laws that you will find in the western world. A big reason for this is colonization. Remember – there are only 22 countries in the world which were not invaded by England. Wherever the English went they also imposed their laws. While most of the oppressive laws were discarded by the countries when they gained freedom, most of the useful stuff was left intact. Things like the patent law had no reason to be updated or changed, and they weren’t. Thus you will find that most of the world treats patents the same way as the western world.
China is different, and one of the main differences is that patents aren’t as big of a deal in China as they are in other parts of the world. Many people say this shows that Chinese business owners are allowed to ‘cheat’ or that they cannot be trusted. This view is wrong and slightly xenophobic. Sure, if you judge at the way Chinese businesses operate with expectations that they will act just like American businesses, you will not think that they are satisfactory. China is, however, even more cutthroat yet more cooperative as a unit than any other country.
The reason for this is the history of China. China was dirt-poor and had the largest population on earth. What has happened in China over the past few decades is nothing short of a miracle. No country has been able to lift so many people out of poverty. If you want to see how difficult it is to bring a billion people out of poverty, just look at India. Their government is trying its best, but the size of the problem is so big that it will take many, many years for meaningful development to take place. China has, on the other hand, already done this.
One thing which is unique to China is that they have whole manufacturing cities. This means that there are large areas which consist of nothing but manufacturers making the same or similar products. This is because China realized that patents, copyrights, and all such things were great – if you were already a developed country whose citizens already had money. To catch up with the rest of the world China would have to cut some corners. While some of us may think of that as unethical, remember that it led to a billion people coming out of poverty. Sure, a few patents and copyrights were violated, but weigh that against a billion people not being poor anymore and you will understand why it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So in China competition is very different than it is in most countries to the west. You can’t just make something and then use copyrights/patents to stifle competition. If you invented something, the factory next to you will start making the same thing the next day if they can. The concept is simple – ‘’may the best company win’’. It is cutthroat capitalism. Only the company that makes the best product survives. Sure, there may be a hundred companies making the same product, but only the ones that can find the perfect balance between quality and price will be able to win.
This is just what happened with China and hoverboards. Hovertrax noticed that hoverboards were everywhere at Canton Fair 2015. Canton Fair is the annual fair that happens in China where Chinese companies showcase their latest products. It may just be the biggest such fair in the world. Anything you see at Canton fair will be available in the rest of the world in the matter of a few months.
In China this isn’t cheating – it is simply competition. When you build something, someone else tries to build an improved version so they can steal your thunder. You may have noticed that a lot of lower priced Chinese goods tend to be ‘jack of all’ type of goods. They try to cram in as many features as they can. You can buy a cheap lighter and it will have a mini-torch in it. This isn’t happening because Chinese manufacturers love cramming features into their products. The reality is very different – this is happening because Chinese manufacturers are trying to beat the competition by making the most useful product possible.
How China made hoverboards possible
The culture wasn’t the only thing that made Chinese companies so adept at making hoverboards so much cheaper than Hovertrax. Another big reason is that China is a manufacturing hub. If you want to set up a factory in a country you have to make sure you have all the resources you need. Any resource that you don’t need has to be imported. Companies that manufacture in other countries often import some parts from China or other places. This adds to the cost.
China has manufacturing infrastructure other countries can only dream of. There is no better country to set up a manufacturing plant. You won’t be able to find the parts you need in China – you will be able to find them in the same city! Most hoverboards were being made in Shenzhen city. The reason for this was very simple – the first few hoverboard factories were built here.
This led to other, smaller parts suppliers also setting up shops inside Shenzhen. This meant that if anyone else wanted to manufacture hoverboards Shenzhen would be the best place for it. All the manufacturers being in one area brought prices down for everyone, and resulted in the cheap hoverboard explosion we saw in the 2016 holiday season. The products which were going for a thousand dollars or more were now available for a few hundred bucks. This made hoverboards affordable for everyone, and they became very popular as a result.
Bad batteries cause downfall of hoverboards
The boom soon came to an end – thanks to bad quality products. A few hoverboards caught fire, and then more hoverboards caught fire. The most troubling part? They didn’t catch fire when being charged or being used – you could have one lying in your cupboard turned off and it would still catch fire. This resulted in a lot of media coverage since so many people owned these hoverboards. This eventually led to hoverboards being banned totally for a few months – they couldn’t be imported into many countries.
This is one of the problems you get with the cutthroat Chinese business culture. Hoverboards require a lot of power for which they need large batteries. Lithium-Ion batteries are used in hoverboards, the same way they are used in our phones. Remember Samsung’s exploding phones? The same thing was happening to hoverboards, at a much larger level. The reason the problem was bigger was that the batteries were bigger. A phone’s battery has enough power to start a small fire that can cause some damage. A hoverboard’s battery is much bigger and thus it can create a much bigger fire, resulting in much more damage.
This isn’t a problem with hoverboards at all – this is a known issue with Lithium-Ion batteries. If they get punctured or damaged in any way they can explode. If you were to poke a knife into your phone battery, it will explode too. It won’t just explode – it will also release chemicals that are harmful for your health, which is why you should never mess around with a Lithium-Ion battery.
The current state of hoverboards
Since the problem was with batteries, companies with good quality control which were buying batteries from good manufacturers never had the problem. Only the cheapest hoverboards, which used the cheapest batteries available had this problem. This brings us to the current state of the hoverboards. You may notice that hoverboard prices are a bit higher now than they were a year ago. This may seem odd, as tech products tend to go down in price as they get older.
The higher price is because the hoverboards being made now are of a much higher quality and they use better batteries. So you don’t have to worry about one catching fire in your cupboard anymore. Another advantage is that these hoverboards are of a much higher quality and will last for a longer time. The better batteries in them aren’t just safer – they also give your hoverboard more power, allowing you to ride it further. Hoverboards have gone through a lot in just the span of 2-3 years, and we are incredibly excited to see where they will be headed next. The technology behind them keeps getting better and better.