Of all the future tech that has been immortalised in Hollywood films over the decades, nothing seems to captured sci-fi geeks’ (of which I am one) imaginations like the hoverboard. The concept seems simple enough yet a working model as remained tantalisingly out of reach. Until now. The Lexus hoverboard is a real thing and I rode it.
(Full Disclosure: Lexus asked us if we would ride a hoverboard. We passed out and then said yes and they flew Robb to Barcelona to try it. We may pass out a few more times.)
Most famously appearing in Robert Zemeckis’s 1989 Back to the Future II, the concept hoverboard is probably less simple than it seems. To make it work you’ve got to have technology that involves some form of anti-gravity device cost-effectively miniaturized to fit on a skateboard. In the same period of time that we’ve gone from the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X to the iPhone 6, we’ve only gone from leg-powered skateboards to a few electric-powered options.
There have been several attempts at creating a working hoverboard that have met with varying degrees of success. Notably, the Hendo Hoverboard is somewhere on that line between proof-of-concept and hoax.
From all reports the Hendo board looked like it was built in a basement and was noisy and almost unridable, even if it did levitate. The Lexus board I rode is a far cry from that. Whisper quiet and smooth as glass, the Lexus hoverboard is a fully polished piece of kit. If the Hendo board is a Model T Ford the Lexus board is, well… a Lexus.
Lexus actually isn’t really breaking any new ground here with their board. All they’re doing is applying existing technology: superconducting magnetic levitation. If you can supercool a superconductor you can get it to react in predictable but sort of amazing way to a magnetic field.
There are videos of people doing this with very small magnets so what Lexus and their scientific partners did was scale up the concept.
So what’s it like to ride? Unbelievably difficult yet at the same time unbelievably cool, both because you’re levitating and because the board is filled with magnets more than 300 degrees below zero.
First, the difficult part. As you can see in the video the board is set to a static, unladen ride height of about 3 or 4 inches. When Lexus’ pro skateboarder, er, hoverboarder Ross McGouran gets on, his weight compresses the boards ride height to about 2 inches. However, as I’m about 100 pounds heavier than Mr. McGouran, when I get on the ride height compresses to a scant one inch.
At one inch the board is still hovering just fine, however, as there are two magnets in each end of the board balancing on it, like walking a tightrope (which apparently I’m not much good at).
As my weight shifts off centre, the one-inch ride height simply isn’t enough to prevent the edges of the board from touching the ground. On a device whose primary design is based on being frictionless, adding even the smallest bit of friction is enough to bring the party to a screeching halt (with me being the one doing the screeching).
As the day wore on I managed to pry Ross away to give me a few pointers. He basically said the best way to ride it is to cowboy up and just get a running start and use momentum to overcome any friction when the board touches down.
Unfortunately that method didn’t go quite as well as we expected (more screeching was involved) so my best effort ended up being a half kick push coast deal. But it worked! I actually managed to hover off the ground for a good 30 feet and that was the cool part.
In day-to-day life you don’t stop to realise that everything you do requires a certain level of friction and the resulting feedback that brings. With the hoverboard, all of that goes away and for a brief moment you feel nothing.
I wish I could explain it better than that, but the feeling is so unique that I have nothing else I can compare it to. The closest feeling that comes to it is ice skating, but even that’s like comparing the finest silk to 300 grit sandpaper.
Is this finally Marty McFly’s hoverboard fully realised, the one fans have been desperately waiting decades to see? Unfortunately not. The Lexus hoverboard requires you fill it with liquid nitrogen every 10 minutes or so, and only works if your local skate park has several hundred thousand dollars worth of magnets built into its surface. It’s also probably the most expensive vehicle Lexus currently produces, making its chances of hitting the store shelves anytime soon almost nil.
None of that is the point.
The point is that a car company has been pushing the boundaries of styling (love it or hate it) for the past few years is now pushing the boundaries of modern technology. By spending cubic dollars on an ad campaign they may have inadvertently helped advance a technology that makes the modern automobile obsolete.
Like someone else once said: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”