In 2015, hoverboards became the must-have gadget of the year. Celebrities such as Lily Allen or Mike Tyson appeared in pictures and videos riding them. They even became some of the most popular Christmas gift items worldwide for users of all ages. However, quite soon after their surge in popularity, retailers such as Amazon or Argos suddenly recalled hoverboards, while authorities (e.g. the UK National Trading Standards body) deemed them unsafe for use and likely to malfunction, causing explosions.
Manufacturers, resellers – a vicious cycle?
The creator of the hoverboard, who patented the vehicle and branded it as “Hovertrax”, saw its invention copied in over 11,000 Chinese factories shortly after launch. Hoverboards were sold at more affordable prices than the $1,000 products first placed on market, as knock-offs rather than the initial version. By the time the original product was produced in thousands, the Chinese factories had already manufactured more than one million at prices as low as $300.
It is a fact that counterfeits are appealing to average consumers for their much lower prices and similar base functionality as their more expensive counterparts. However, most such products are of inferior quality, dangerous and unsafe, due to unrigorous normative testing prior to market release, with the guarantees or after-sales services lacking altogether in most cases. This is one of the reasons why products can be ready for launch in roughly 3 months in Shenzhen, China, while in the West the process takes up to a year. A quality product not only undergoes extensive quality control checks, but it also uses higher-grade components, reflected in its greater selling price. It can therefore be said that mass manufacturing processes are focused on cutting corners aiming to reach the end result in the cheapest and fastest way possible, trading the health and safety of customers for profit, undermining the core value attached to the engineering profession.
Originating from the high-demand for these devices, the fast-paced, self-regulated and outsourced means of manufacturing, instead of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of consumers, have accidentally led to catastrophic consequences, fed by the following vicious cycle:
- manufacturers, more or less capable of producing a viable hoverboard, strive to seize the cultural phenomenon and attract as many customers as possible, by mass-producing versions of their own, bypassing manufacturing standards and safety regulations
- resellers adopt practices that observe and take advantage of trends in popularity, advertising and placing products on the market when it peaks in demand, irregardless of the manufacturers’ reputation
Given the risks involved by the previously mentioned vicious cycle, there is a need for prompt action. Possible interventions could include: 1) adopting an additional ethical procurement policy that ensures consistent regulatory compliance for a trusted network of hardware suppliers and accurate provisions, regardless of their provenience, thus tightening the component supply chains for hoverboards; 2) informing the public of all the safety certification stages the hoverboard has gone through; 3) reengineering the design and manufacturing processes as to prevent fundamental design flaws, such as the hoverboard batteries overheat.
These strategies can lead to more responsible engineering practices, sustaining innovation yet assuring quality, which maximizes the utility for consumers without disregarding the importance of production means and personal duty for staff involved in the supply chain, resulting in the economy safely being pushed forward.
Should the customers and/or government be held responsible?
Government action – product recall in order to ensure consumer safety
Hoverboard as a new product is currently classified as a vehicle (a special type of scooter), but some consumers consider it a toy, so it is common for minors to use hoverboard. From the government’s point of view, firstly, the government needs to consider the threat of this product to public safety. Secondly, the government needs to consider the impact of hoverboard on the traffic system.
Since the advent of the hoverboard, there have caused many casualties, such as a fire accident that killed three people on March 10, 2017 in Pennsylvania, United States. According to the information retrieved from the united states consumer product safety commission website, there have been 20 hoverboard-related recall events in 2016 and 2017, involving multiple models and multiple manufacturers. The main problem is that The lithium-ion battery packs in the self-balancing scooters/hoverboards can overheat, posing a risk of the products smoking, catching fire and/or exploding. Therefore, the government should aim at this situation, regulate the production process of such products, define the quality inspection standards, and avoid the flow of products with defective design or poor quality.
As a means of transportation, governments have different attitudes towards hoverboard. According to a tweet issued by the head of the New York City police’s 26th precinct, according to NYC Admin. Code 19-176.2, any Hoverboard electronic booster is illegal. In the absence of a licensing system, no dedicated roads, and unclear classification of motor vehicles/non-motor vehicles, it is wise for the government to prohibit the hoverboard from entering the traffic system.
The customer’s action can be divided into two aspects, namely buying and using.
In order to ensure public safety, customers should try to choose safer products, but without adequate guidance, it is difficult for customers to make an accurate assessment of product safety. Therefore, at the time of purchase, if the government has issued a clear quality standard, customers should judge whether the product quality is up to standard before purchasing.
There is no uniform standard for the use of hoverboard. For example, California law (Ab 604) requires that individuals must be over 16 and wearing a helmet when riding a hoverboard on public paths. Although there is no licensing system, but customers should be in accordance with the law, to avoid non-compliant people (too small children, etc.) and inappropriate people (who are not physically healthy, etc.) use hoverboard, and only in the prescribed place to use. Due to the problems of the lithium-ion battery packs, excessive charging should be avoided during use. After long-term use, it should be maintained, replaced or scrapped in time to prevent accidents caused by improper use.