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Where hoverboards go to fly -- or die

Inside a 120-year-old lab, researchers are torture testing these fire-prone, battery-powered scooters. Their goal: to bring hoverboards back from the brink of extinction.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
5 min read
Tyler Lizenby/CNET
Watch this: UL fights hoverboard fires with new safety standards

Let's just start out by saying that today's "hoverboards" can't actually fly or hover.

What passes for a hoverboard, a device teased at more than 30 years ago in the "Back to the Future" movies, is actually a self-balancing scooter. Besides being earthbound, today's hoverboards have another problem: they can catch fire and explode. That's why the government has cautioned people against buying them, retail giants like Amazon have banned them, and airlines won't let you carry them on board.

Now a product safety lab that started testing products and technology more than 120 years ago is making a gallant effort to intervene and save hoverboards from extinction by testing them. How? By actually trying to make them explode.

Underwriters Laboratories, or UL for short, is an independent product testing company established in 1894 by an electrical engineer named William Henry Merrill. He had previously worked in the Electricity Building at the Chicago's World Fair to check the safety of its wiring. UL began developing standards in the 1900s and became widely known after giving a safety rating to a fire extinguisher.

Today, UL, headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois, tests everything from mobile devices, lighting equipment and fire tech to jewelry, watches and dietary supplements. It's one of several companies approved as a Nationally Recognized Testing Lab by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

And now it's ready to show off the safety standards it's devised for hoverboards.

Visualizing the new UL hoverboard tests (pictures)

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On February 23, a team of engineers, lead by Consumer Safety Director John Drengenberg, who has worked for UL for more than 50 years, walked a group of reporters through the bowels of UL headquarters, a surprisingly outdated building with some doors that open via a pulley system. That's literally a rope you yank on to cross between rooms.

Drengenberg gave us the scoop on UL 2272, a new certification related to hoverboards that focuses on the "safety of the electrical drive train system and battery and charger combination, and does not evaluate the performance or reliability of these devices. In addition, it does not evaluate the overall safety of the self-balancing scooters."

That means if you fall off a scooter because those things can be tough to balance on, it's not UL's jurisdiction.

But the health of the various components that make up a hoverboard, from the battery to the circuitry and how it's all connected together, is central to what UL does.

"The testing that UL does starts with the materials, the actual materials that go into all of the components in the product," Drengenberg said. "It then goes to the component, like the cells and the enclosure. Then it goes to the battery pack, the charger and finally to the hoverboard itself."

Drengenberg said that individual lithium ion cells and multicell battery packs are of particular concern: "This is where most of the issues could arise from, because the battery pack carries a lot of energy in a small package. The battery pack is something that, when one of the cells faults, it could involve others. It has a domino effect that could cause the fires that we might have seen."

Enlarge Image
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Inside the massive underground complex, we head to the Fluids Lab, where employees test and evaluate fuel pumps and other gas-station-related devices. We watch as single lithium ion cells explode due to various types of trauma -- in one room, a mechanical process pushed a nail straight into the center of the cell (that's what you're seeing in the GIF above). In another room, a technician applied indirect heat near the cell remotely.

Both times, the cell exploded in a frenzy of orange flames.

Drengenberg told us that most hoverboards are packed with 20 lithium ion cells, which together make up a complete battery pack. Seeing the damage that one cell can cause, even when peering through a window into a sealed room, is jarring. But not every cell has the same reaction. According to the UL team, where some cells explode right away, others are built with backup measures designed to release gasses without bursting into flames.

We also watched a drop test. That's where engineers hold a hoverboard about one meter, or 39.37 inches, above the ground and, well...drop it. Three times. While the model used during the demo didn't fall apart, it did develop a serious crack by the time researchers were done with it.

The final test they showcased involved sticking a hoverboard wheel, which houses the motor, in a vise. If the scooter overheats as it attempts to free itself over a seven-hour period, it's disqualified from UL certification. These "torture tests" are designed to make it simpler to distinguish models with questionable component design from ones with more stability.

UL hasn't certified a single hoverboard yet. But the team is confident it's equipped to test any model that comes its way, though it couldn't share specifics on brands or companies that have already approached it for UL's stamp of approval.

That doesn't help with all the counterfeit UL logos decorating product boxes and components, but there's a whole separate team at the labs dedicated to sniffing those out. UL also has plans for fancier hologram stickers that should be harder for forgers to replicate.

Last month, Amazon stopped selling all hoverboards from its website, leaving only accessories such as decals and wheels available. An ad for the Razor Hovertrax hoverboard leads to a nearly empty page on the website.

Amazon's decision followed reports that started to appear in December, when the boards became hot (no pun intended) holiday gifts, of hoverboards catching fire. The Seattle-based retailer's ban came after the US Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed all hoverboards unsafe on Feb. 19, saying they "pose an unreasonable risk of fire" if they don't meet voluntary safety standards. No hoverboards currently on the market meet those standards.

Will all these new test procedures inspire someone to design a real hoverboard? Drengenberg hopes so -- and so do I.

"Even though we [UL] haven't certified any hoverboards yet, we certainly have the requirements in place," Drengenberg said. "We are happy to talk with manufacturers who will have questions about how to proceed through the testing protocol."

This story was originally published February 25. Additional reporting by CNET's Ben Fox Rubin and Carrie Mihalcik.