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Hoverboard Fires Linked To New Manufacturing Process In China


A hot new toy is a hot mess. Hoverboards - those hands-free, two-wheeled, motorized scooters are so hot, they are flying off the shelves. And they are also so hot that a handful of them have literally caught fire. Usually, when a major brand has a problem with its product, it tries hard to make things right. But as Audrey Quinn of NPR's Planet Money explains, there is no single brand in the case of the hoverboard.

AUDREY QUINN, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Mark Anton was riding his hoverboard in his dorm hallway, showing it off to friends. He's an undergrad at John Carroll University in Ohio, and something seemed off about the hoverboard - it wasn't rolling as smoothly as usual, he kept falling off.

MARK ANTON: And then it would just be, like, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep - and then, like, all its lights came on.

QUINN: He'd bought it a couple of days earlier, some brand he didn't recognize. But it looked good and it worked. He'd been riding it around to classes. But he'd left it charging overnight -something hoverboard sellers say you should not do.

ANTON: And then it just stopped, shut down and then smoke came out. It was, like, pshhh(ph). And then it just, like, burst into flames - kind of, like, boop. And then, like, we're just looking at it, and we're like no way this just happened.

QUINN: He pulled the fire alarm. The whole dorm had to evacuate. No one was hurt, but now he's that guy whose hoverboard almost burned down the building. The reason these hoverboards catch fire has to do with the way they're made. They come from superefficient manufacturing networks in China, factories that are good at making stuff fast but not always carefully. They churn out a lot of unbranded gadgets. Lyn Jeffery studies these manufacturers at the Institute for the Future. It's a nonprofit think tank. She says these are the same people who bring us cheap watches, selfie sticks. And when those things break, well, we don't usually get too surprised or too upset.

LYN JEFFERY: When you don't have a well-established or a well-known brand, you also don't have the backup and accountability that you would have with a brand.

QUINN: And when you don't have that accountability for hoverboards, you get fires. But people have latched on to hoverboards in a way people haven't latched on to a Chinese-created product before. And it's not something these manufacturers are ready for.

JEFFERY: They're not in the business of creating long-term relationships with consumers. They're in the business of spinning up fast new products to meet new consumer demands.

QUINN: Those long-term relationships with consumers are something Lee Maschmeyer's good at. He's co-founder of the brand consultancy Collins - works with brands like Target and Coke. And he looked a little nervous when I brought a hoverboard into his office.

LEE MASCHMEYER: You know, to be honest, the first thought that hopped into my head was will it explode?

QUINN: If you were consulting with this particular hoverboard company, what advice would you give to them at this point, or is it too late?

MASCHMEYER: I mean, I'd love to tackle it. It'd be a very interesting challenge. These people are going to have a very hard time regaining control of the story about their brand and the trust from their consumers.

QUINN: He says right now there's a hole in the market. These Chinese manufacturers have a generic product people really love, but they're not loving people back. Normally, these factories make a trendy no-name gadget for one season then move on. But hoverboards have been such a breakout hit, Lyn Jeffery says it might actually pay off for them to embrace branded manufacturing with a safer product.

JEFFERY: I think that people are going to come in and clean up. I really do.

QUINN: She says hoverboards have already proved their market exists. Now a brand just has to prove we can trust them. Audrey Quinn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audrey Quinn