Segway’s safer, smarter hoverboard offers a plush ride
I took a hoverboard home last week, and days later, the place was still standing.
That’s the most important thing about the new miniPRO self-balancing scooter from Segway Inc. of Bedford, N.H. It’s the first hoverboard to pass muster with UL, the global product testing organization once called Underwriters Laboratories. That means the miniPRO is designed not to burn your house down — unlike dozens of cheaply made hoverboards that have caught fire in recent months.
The miniPRO is a toy for people with money to burn, though. Priced at $1,000 on Amazon.com, it looks like a cross between one of those cheesy hoverboards and a classic Segway scooter. But with its soft tires and nearly silent electric motors, it cruises over smooth pavement like my father’s old Buick Electra 225. It’s almost as good on rougher terrain, and easily hauled me up a moderately steep hill in Milton.
A foolish encounter with a speed bump sent me sprawling. And unexpected slowdowns caused by the automatic speed limiter nearly threw me once or twice. But I soon got accustomed to the miniPRO’s plush ride and precise handling.
As with other hoverboards, you lean forward to go and backward to stop or to roll backward. But Segway has added an extra gimmick: a steering rudder that fits between the rider’s knees. Instead of merely tilting your body left or right to turn, you nudge a knee against the rudder, and the miniPRO changes course, with nearly disconcerting agility.
You shouldn’t invest in a miniPRO or any other hoverboard without first making sure you can legally ride them on your town’s streets.
It’s even more important to ensure you’re not buying a flamethrower in disguise. Of the thousands of inexpensively produced hoverboards purchased by Americans, at least 62 have burst into flames, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In May, one such fire left a Boston family homeless. Retailers have stopped selling them; airlines and the MBTA have barred them.
But Segway knew it could do better. After all, the company had pioneered the concept 15 years ago, when it introduced an electric vehicle that used a gyroscope to balance on two wheels. The original Segways dazzled journalists and tech junkies, who marvelled that the thing could remain upright, much less carry a human at about at 12 miles an hour. But few consumers bought one; you usually see them being used by park rangers, tourists, and the like.
The standard Segway is a fairly big machine, with fat, puffy tires and handlebar controls. But then an inventor in California designed the first hoverboard. It worked like a Segway but was smaller, lighter and handlebar-free — just two wheels and a place to stand. People loved them — until their smoke alarms started going off.
Board makers have gotten the message; they’re rushing UL-approved rides onto retail shelves. BJ’s Wholesale Club this week started selling UL-approved hoverboards for as little as $400.But Segway got there first, with a machine that stresses deluxe features, rather than low price.
A lot of thought and engineering have gone into the miniPRO. Also a heavy-duty magnesium casing, a set of big plump, air-filled tires, and a massive battery pack that’s supposed to give it a range of 14 miles. I never tried to go that far.
The miniPRO weighs 30 pounds but feels even heavier. The UL tested a version for the Chinese market with a maximum capacity of 185 pounds. The company has since introduced one for the American market that can carry 220 pounds and expects to soon receive a UL certification.
You need an Apple or Android smartphone to activate the miniPRO and guide you through a practice session. The board won’t go more than 4 miles per hour until you complete an on-screen tutorial. Then your speed limit rises to about 6 miles per hour until you’ve ridden another half-mile. After that, you can use the Segway app to unlock the miniPRO’s speed limiter and go racing along at up to 10 miles per hour. The app includes a speedometer, but you’d be crazy to look at it while driving, and isn’t there a law against that?
There’s no point stealing a miniPRO. The phone app can lock it with a security code that turns it into a two-wheeled brick. A spokesman said that even Segway can’t unlock a miniPRO if you lose the code.
The zaniest feature of all is a remote control that lets you drive the empty hoverboard to the limits of your phone’s Bluetooth range. I sent it scurrying down the corridors of the Globe, looking like R2D2 on a diet. Don’t ask me what it’s good for, but it’s certainly cool.
But it doesn’t match the fun of riding the miniPRO, and floating along almost without effort, like a superhero on his day off. With a miniPRO, you can pretend to be Iron Man, with no risk of becoming the Human Torch.