Safety moratorium issued on hoverboards

Photo courtesy of Ben Larcy

Under the recommendation of Tech’s safety and legal officials, a temporary campus moratorium has been placed on the self-balancing scooters commonly known as hoverboards.

First announced in a Department of Housing email on Jan. 7, the moratorium was initially on hoverboards in residence halls but has since been expanded to be campus-wide.

“The moratorium has now grown to cover all buildings,” said Larry Labbe, campus fire marshal. “It operates in Housing with their policy procedures and their judiciary process. [Having a hoverboard in one’s room] works just like being caught with another item in your room that you’re not supposed to have, so we’re using natural, pre-existing mechanisms there.”

The moratorium is a result of increased attention on the safety of certain lithium-ion batteries in hoverboards, and more specifically their reported combustibility.

“I’d been monitoring it as social media and the news started covering it,” Labbe said. “There were just too many incidents, so I sent an email to our risk manager, and that was how a series of meetings began. We convened Legal and Risk Management, and in that first meeting we were all like-minded … And so we quickly moved to whether we should do a ban, or a moratorium or an advisory, and how we would do it. The next two or three meetings brought a lot more people to the table: the dean of students, housing, the police chief and many others.”

“We’re not against the product, and that’s important to note. Tech is about pushing forward with new technologies and products, so we want to approach this with the sense that this is a moratorium, it’s temporary.”

The Consumer Products Safety Commission, a federal agency, is currently investigating reports of the lithium-ion batteries in hoverboards catching fire in nine different states.

“It’s not really unique to hoverboards, but the combination of low-quality batteries and an application that gets thrown around a lot has resulted in some of these fires,” said Dr. Matthew McDowell, an assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. “Lithium-ion batteries hold a lot of energy, because the materials within the battery naturally want to chemically react. However, they are physically separated from each other by a membrane in a battery. A lot of the safety issues associated with lithium-ion batteries arise when the membrane no longer does its job — for instance, if it is punctured or material grows through the membrane.”

“Furthermore, the quality of your lithium-ion battery matters a lot — cheaper batteries made with sub-par standards may have manufacturing defects that make it much easier for agitation or an external ‘shock’, perhaps like jumping onto a hoverboard, to damage internal components, which induces safety hazards.”

The moratorium is intended to be a stopgap solution while multiple investigations into the safety of different brands of hoverboard continue.

“That was one of my questions of Legal — can we ban certain brands? We’re still waiting for a grouping [of safe versus unsafe brands], and we’ve decided to let the federal investigation by the Consumer Products Safety Commission give us an answer,” Labbe said. “We plan to reconvene at a later date, give them a chance to come out with some feedback, and then from that the campus is going to look at the moratorium to see if we change it, drop it, maybe list safe ones versus unsafe ones.”

“My gut says the Consumer Products Safety Commission is going to find the problematic batteries and manufacturers, issue a recall and the moratorium will be lifted at least partially … I don’t think hoverboards are gone. I think they’ll probably be back.”