Hoverboards go back to the future

Magnetic levitation isn’t new, but Lexus uses the technology to great effect for its hoverboard. Just don’t expect to ride one anytime soon, write Craig Trudell and Yuki Hagiwara

Hoverboards go back to the future

Imagine being handed what looks like a skateboard that almost magically hovers an inch or three above the ground.

See yourself running, your hand beneath the board as it floats, suspended in midair. Carefully step on it to test out its buoyancy. And then take a running leap onto it — just as you would with your beloved skateboard — only to have it slide out underneath you, leaving you flat on your rear. Welcome to the world of the Lexus hoverboard.

Professional skateboarder Ross McGouran had to start over again as a beginner, learning to move without the help of any friction underneath. Science fiction turned into reality during the three days Lexus filmed the Slide mini-movie series.

Lexus has a history of facing the competition, such as German engineering, head-on. So it might strike some as a surprise that Toyota Motor’s luxury car brand turned to the land of BMW and Mercedes when it wanted to create a hoverboard. Then again, Marty McFly said it himself: “Yeah, well, history is gonna change.”

Before we get to that, a brief description how it works: Lexus’s hoverboard uses magnetic levitation, or maglev, to achieve frictionless movement. Liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors are combined with a magnetic surface to essentially repel gravity.

Maglev technology itself isn’t new, and this isn’t the first hoverboard to use it. US startup Arx Pax raised over €500,000 last year through a Kickstarter campaign to fund its Hendo Hoverboard.

That device is dependent on batteries that last 10-15 minutes and take an hour or two to charge. The technology is also being used in mass rapid transportation systems such as the Shanghai Maglev Train. In Japan, the SCMaglev test train recently hit a top speed of 375mph.

What is new: the spin that Lexus’s German engineering partner, Evico, has put on the technology. Its design fits neatly into the Back to the Future movie buff’s perception of how a hoverboard should look and work — especially those partial to Japanese luxury cars with spindle grilles and bamboo.

Lexus’s initial Slide video trailers went viral. Suddenly, it seemed possible to be Marty McFly, surfing through air. Still, the final video shows just how hard it is to ride this hoverboard.

“A skateboard has got resistance. Even with a surfboard, you’ve got the resistance of water,” says David Nordstrom, general manager for global branding at Lexus International in Tokyo. “This is essentially floating on air. If you’ve ever tried to stand on a board, or something on water without any momentum, that’s what this kind of feels like.”

Even though Lexus and Evico were able to pull off the project, don’t expect to see a hoverboard fly past while you’re walking down the street next year. To use maglev technology that would make this sort of hoverboard work, you need a magnetic metal track. Normal concrete pavements won’t do.

Lexus solved this issue by converting a skate park in Barcelona into a temporary hoverboard skate park. On an existing track composed of cement and wood, the Lexus and Evico teams swooped in to lay down hundreds of small magnets.

The project took about 18 months to complete. Lexus considered throwing in the towel on several occasions, according to Yolande Waldock, who leads the global brand team for Lexus International. But skateboarder McGouran ended up pushing the project forward with a new bag of tricks such as riding above water.

In the new video, McGouran swoops around a cement bowl, flies off a ramp, and jumps a Lexus car. “You feel like you’re looking at a magic act,” Nordstrom says. “People are going to be calling Lexus and saying ‘please build one, how much is it going to cost, we want to have one.’”

If he’s right, Lexus may have disappointing news for fans: It won’t even venture a guess as to how much the hoverboard would cost.

“You couldn’t actually even put a figure on it,” Waldock says. “It’s impossible to put a figure on it.”

So why develop a hoverboard in the first place? Well, the car industry has long been an arena whose players fight for eyeballs. The competition for attention has never been stiffer: Carmakers are duking it out with tech giants that aspire to build self-driving vehicles, and at least one chief executive moonlights as the head of a rocket company. It’s never been as challenging as it is today to rise above the rest and turn heads.

So there: a real, working hoverboard. Waldock says the response has been overwhelming. If the final video is to be remembered as fondly as watching Doc and Marty send their DeLorean back in time, its last scene will probably end up the clincher.

“To see the hoverboard leave a ramp and then join it again on the other side, after it’s jumped a Lexus vehicle is amazing,” Waldock says.

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