Technology

Segway pounces on hoverboard market

Hoverboards were best-selling gifts during the 2015 Christmas season.
Stephen Brashear/Associated Press/file 2015
Hoverboards were best-selling gifts during the 2015 Christmas season.

The Segway self-balancing scooter never became the red-hot consumer product its developers hoped for. But at least none have been blamed for a house fire.

You can’t say the same about hoverboards, the popular low-cost scooters that are a miniature echo of the Segway. All too many hoverboards are fire hazards on wheels, banned from airplanes and college campuses, and blamed for dozens of blazes, including one that ravaged a Boston apartment last Sunday.

Bedford, N.H.-based Segway was slow to the hoverboard market, but its rivals’ blunders have given the company a chance to play catch-up, with a new product designed for safety as well as speed — the Segway miniPRO Personal Transporter, due to go on sale by early June for less than $1,000.

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The miniPRO is the first hoverboard to pass a new safety certification established by UL, the global product testing organization also known as Underwriters Laboratories. The release of a safety-certified hoverboard, combined with a recent federal ban on imports of several other brands, could help make Segway the dominant hoverboard in the United States.

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John Drengenberg, UL’s consumer safety director, said the miniPRO passed a series of tests developed by UL engineers for hoverboards. “It should function properly without bursting into flame,” he said.

Technically, the vehicles are called self-balancing scooters. Segway pioneered the concept in 2001, but its large, expensive machines never caught on with the public. Instead, Segways were a niche product, mostly used by police and security guards, or rented to tourists. The smaller versions are called hoverboards, because of their resemblance to the anti-gravity devices shown in the popular movie “Back to the Future II.”

Hoverboard wheels contain powerful electric motors that can propel a rider at 10 miles an hour. And they use electronic gyroscopes to hold the rider upright, with no need for the handlebars found on a bicycle or the original Segway scooter.

The Segway miniPRO resembles a shrunken version of the full-sized Segway. Its most distinctive feature is a “knee bar”, a sort of mini-handlebar that rests between the rider’s knees and is supposed to assist balance and steering.

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Hoverboards were best-selling gifts during the 2015 Christmas season. But their popularity waned after reports of cheaply-made hoverboards bursting into flames, due to defective electronics. Retailers Target, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Amazon.com stopped selling them and dozens of airlines refused to allow them on their planes.

Segway
A new hoverboard from segway, the Ninebot by Segway miniPRO.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission said 52 hoverboard fires in 24 states caused over $2 million in property damage between December and February.

The first hoverboard fire in Boston at an apartment on Hanover Street Sunday displaced 10 people and caused $100,000 in damage. On Wednesday, Boston City Councilor Timothy McCarthy said the city should consider imposing new regulations.

At UL, engineers subjected hoverboards to a multitude of tests. For example, hoverboards use lithium-ion rechargable battery packs, similar to those found in laptop computers and smartphones. But with a hoverboard, “one battery pack contains more energy than dozens of cell phones,” Drengenberg said. A short circuit can easily cause a fire.

The UL tests the electrical circuitry, and also how the device holds up under everyday use. Hoverboards are often ridden through puddles, and must be water-resistant enough to avoid short-circuits. They must also withstand being dropped or kicked without suffering electrical damage.

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Though the standard Segway has been around for 15 years, it’s never been certified by UL. The company said that it has since submitted it to UL and expects to get a certificate later this year.

Other hoverboards are going after UL certification; a Segway competitor in Shenzhen, China received its certificate days after the miniPRO was approved.

Meanwhile an intellectual property dispute is blocking some makers from the American market. In March the US International Trade Commission barred several companies from selling them in the US, because their products violated a patent held by Segway’s founder, Dean Kamen.

When Segway filed its original complaint in 2014, one of the companies it targeted was a Chinese startup called Ninebot. Last April, Ninebot acquired Segway, thereby resolving their dispute.

The new owners are targeting other makers for patent infringement. Some have settled, but the rest are banished from the American market.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.