Sure, there's Tesla. Tesla's great. Self-driving Google cars? I'm into it. But Boosted Boards' electric longboard is available today, at a price (some) people can afford. And riding it is glory and joy itself.
Boosted is a new company: six mechatronic engineers and an industrial designer. They designed a skateboard driven by two brushless electric motors powered by lithium rechargeable batteries. They pre-sold them on Kickstarter in late 2012, and a year-and-a half later started shipping them to their backers. They were $US1100 then; pre-orders today start at $US2000.
I didn't order one in 2012 because I was broke. But Boosted sent me one for our recent Home of the Future event, and I've spent the last month riding it, primarily on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan -- something like 120km total, at least. I still can't really afford a Boosted Board, but I really, really don't want to send this demo unit back.
Let's start with the looks, because it's for that kind of money you should enjoy showing it off. Boosted Board is an attractive piece of hardware, with custom fittings for the motors, batteries and electronics, with understated geometric design on the deck and markedly overstated orange wheels and accents. Two 1000W motors drive two belts attached to the rear wheels. To operate it, you hold a wireless controller with a trigger switch to engage the clutch, and a thumb-wheel to mete out power both forward and backward.
Then there's the experience of the ride itself. I don't have a lot of longboarding experience. I bought my first regular board just a few weeks before I started riding the Boosted. I can foot brake, but poorly. I can jump off when I get into a bad situation and sometimes I can do it without banging up my knees. I still can't do a Pendelton sideways slide, nor am I sure exactly where I'd be able to on my New York City skating routes.
None of my limitations really mattered though. Within four hours of taking the Boosted Board out of its box, I was able to ride it home from Soho to Ft Greene, a distance of about 6km, including a bumpy scoot over the Manhattan Bridge and its annoyingly deep, metal expansion joints. It only took a week before I could do the same ride without being terrified.
The Boosted Board does has a few ticks that take getting used to. It has a lot of torque. And, because it's electric, that torque is more or less available right at the beginning. Start from a dead stop and it's easy to fall off the back of the board as it takes off without you. Better to kick start like a regular skateboard a few times, then slowly dial in the power to get moving. (You'll probably have an easier time than I did though, as I learned to ride the board in "Expert Mode" and not "Beginner Mode". In my eagerness to get riding, I never bothered to check which mode it was in.)
The Boosted Board is governed at a top speed of 32km/h, which is just about all you'd want, especially while learning. The trucks and suspension seem overly tight at first, but I soon came to realise that the tightness provided relative stability near its top speeds -- speeds a normal board is rarely going to get unless you're screaming downhill.
I picked up riding quickly, in part, I think, because I have ridden motorcycles for several years and have learned the hard way not to freeze up when a ride starts to get squirrelly. Although I was geared up to an embarrassing degree -- knee pads, elbow pads, gloves and helmet -- I managed not to have a bad off onto tarmac the entire time I was learning to ride, and soon was comfortable with just gloves and helmet, which made commuting and carrying around the board and accouterments when not riding much simpler. I suspect almost anyone would be able to get comfortable riding a Boosted Board within a couple of weeks, at most, especially if your practice area includes some wide open spaces with smooth tarmac, and not the crowded garbage streets of Manhattan.
Riding a Boosted Board is one of the best feelings of motion I've ever experienced, up there with the fun of a motorcycle and far more physically involving than driving a car at speed. It's right on the border of the full-body engagement of a sport and the performance amplification of a vehicle. It's not a passive activity. You have to scan the road ahead, plan out your turns, be ready to commit to maneuvers with your body and board as one unit. But the way you can move is unlike anything else, where a relaxed stance begets smooth cornering without the loss of acceleration of an analogue board. Hell, you can accelerate through the apex of a turn with your arse way out over the side of the board. It feels amazing.
Or, if you like, a parlor trick: walk down the street with the board following at your side. Maybe give it a name, like I did, and trick your girlfriend into thinking it's voice-controlled, and responds to the name "Boardie."
Plus, there are brakes. If anything, I have more affection for the brakes than I do the acceleration, especially as a relative novice to longboarding. Roll back on the thumb-wheel while moving and the Boosted Board will start to slow down (shoving a little power back in the battery through regeneration, no less). There is a limit to how quickly you can brake before the clutch starts to clack and stutter, but with a moderate degree of foresight you'll always be able to stop or slow yourself as necessary. Being able to calmly slow yourself down as you approach a downhill stop sign or a jaywalker changes the safety and utility of a longboard to a fundamental degree. All of the sudden I wasn't looking at my commuting routes as a series of areas for skating punctuated by long walks, but instead as one more or less uninterrupted stretch of road on which to glide. Boosted rightly warns that a rider must be capable of stopping the board if the battery dies or the motors stop working, and while that's a fair warning, in my experience the belt-driven wheels spin far less freely than a normal longboard, making it bleed off speed -- or not speed up as quickly downhill -- faster than a normal board.
A sample ride: I left the Gawker offices in Soho around 6PM, heading down the Bowery until traffic got a little too hairy for comfort just a little past my turn onto Delancey. I coasted to an easy stop right before the ramped curb, then hopped off, leaning down to grab the board with my left hand while my right used the remote to give the board a little boost so that it rolled right into my hand. (Don't worry; I fucked this move up plenty of times.) I threw the board over a shoulder -- it's a little heavy to hold in one hand for long -- and walked through through the crowds on the sidewalk down Delancey until I could get back into a clear bike lane. I crossed with the stoplight to get into the middle of the street with the Williamsburg Bridge bike and pedestrian lanes, then hopped back on the board, gathering enough speed to ride up the concrete ramp and into the bike lane of the bridge itself, quickly accelerating past the huffing bikers on the uphill path and catching the eye of more than a few pedestrians.
People definitely stare at someone riding a powered skateboard uphill.
A slow, steady climb up the bridge through the first kink, a slow roll over an expansion joint, then a lot of bobbing and weaving around the bad patches (or lack thereof) in the bike lane that dropped an inch or more onto metal plates embedded in the asphalt. Some of them I couldn't avoid, so I kept my knees bent and loose and let the board soak up what it could and stayed more or less steady. Over the apex of the bridge and down again, and my feet started to ache from both the vibration of hitting seams in the road surface and the lack of sturdy musculature in my feet, so I took advantage of a little sheltered eddy in the path right before the final, downhill kink. A couple of minutes of stretching later and I was ready to go, so I looked both ways, hopped on the board, gave a little kick, and then immediately lost my balance when I tried to engage the motors.
Unfortunately, I'd misjudged how fast a biker was coming downhill in the same lane behind me, and heard the whirr of his tires and his frantic ringing of a bell. I kicked the board away towards the edge of the bridge, which happened to be the same place he had swerved to avoid hitting me as he leaned into his brakes. The biker t-boned the Boosted Board, flying over his handlebars. Somehow I reached out and grabbed his backpack, pulling backwards as he flew through the air, and he somehow landed on his feet, his face three feet from the ground. I began apologizing profusely, but in his confusion in deciding whether to thank me or kick my arse, he just hopped on his bike and rode away. I got on the Boosted, none the worse for wear, and rode home.
In short, you can still definitely hurt yourself and others on a Boosted Board, which is a vehicle and not a toy. Also that was amazing and I wanted to tell you about it.
Now let me be clear: there's absolutely no reason to buy a Boosted Board today, especially at two grand a pop, unless you cannot wait to experience a modern electric vehicle today, and not in a couple of years when the company or a competitor will provide something comparable at a more reasonable price. And beyond the price itself, there are still first-generation quirks: the drive train sits lower than I'd like, leading to bang-ups on bumpy roads; the belts and motors are open to the air, which means no riding in the wet; the skateboard wheels, while perfect for a smooth ride on clear, clean surfaces, don't handle stray gravel or rough roads as well as a pneumatic tire might. (Boosted tells me they are exploring other optional wheel types for future designs.)
Some might criticise Boosted for making a modern gadget without a smartphone component -- one is coming -- but I interpret that as a sign their priorities are straight. How the board rides and survives is vastly more important than some app, and you can check the battery level by pushing a button on the remote and consulting the five power LEDs, so...good enough. In some ways, it's even refreshing to have a device that stands alone.
And having to carry around the proprietary charger, which is large if lightweight (just a couple of pounds) is annoying. If I relied on riding a Boosted Board every day, I'd probably thrown down another 80 bucks to have a second charger at the office.
But if you want to experience one of the glorious new ways that powerful electronic motors and batteries are changing how we move our old meat-and-bone bodies around -- and make no mistake, this is just one of several new electric vehicles that are going to put gasoline back in the ground where it belongs, both from Boosted and its competitors -- then two grand is a pretty reasonable price to pay for a piece of hardware that is impeccably designed, sturdy enough to withstand a 225-pound klutzy rider, and capable of providing you a feeling of linear flight. It's an exciting time for gadgetry again, what with all our connectivity and software innovation, and while software might move you emotionally, an electric motor will move you literally, and if that doesn't get you excited than maybe nothing will.
The Boosted Board is incredibly well built and designed for years of service. (Replacement sets of belts and other hardware can be ordered, as necessary.) It's a real accomplishment, especially from such a small team. But it's only one of dozens of electric motility devices coming along, from bicycles to weird unicycle balance boards to competing electric skateboards to all sorts of other possibilities that could have never worked with gasoline and internal combustion engines. (Electric in-like skates?) That's the most exciting thing: that all these new technologies aren't just better for our planet, but are actually giving us wholly new ways to embrace speed and movement. It's a great time to be a nerd who likes to move.