Of the many technologies predicted by the 1989 classic Back to the Future Part II, perhaps none has stirred our collective imagination more than the Mattel Hoverboard, breathlessly ridden by Marty McFly through the streets of 2015 Hill Valley. The combination of an important part of American pop culture — the humble skateboard — with not-quite-plausible futurism made for a powerful combination, and people have been trying to replicate it ever since.
Some of those efforts have been marginally successful, but none have produced the dream of a go-anywhere skateboard replacement. Still, we want these things so badly that we keep pounding away, consistently ignoring the realities of physics in the 26 years since the film came out. This year, for obvious reasons, holds a particularly high risk of harboring half-baked BTTF II props and publicity stunts, but I don’t think anyone counted on Lexus — yes, that Lexus, Toyota’s luxury car brand — butting into the conversation.
Yet, here we are.
Last month I spent my Independence Day weekend in Cubelles, Spain — a town about an hour away from Barcelona — invited by Lexus to try out the hoverboard that it had been teasing in video spots since June. As with any hoverboard claim, I was skeptical going in: we knew that Lexus built an entire skatepark for it, but it wasn’t completely clear how it worked (if at all) and why they were going to all the trouble in the first place. Was it even remotely possible that Lexus — of all companies — was going to make the dream of the commercialized, go-anywhere hoverboard come true? Had they really done it?
History certainly wasn’t on Lexus’ side. Last March, news broke of the "HUVr," which appeared to be a very real, working hoverboard, with testimonials from Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) himself, Tony Hawk, and others. Turns out it was a hoax created by Funny or Die. And then, just months later, the so-called Hendo launched on Kickstarter to much fanfare, though it came with plenty of caveats: it would cost $10,000 and needs a copper floor in order to hover. (I suppose that if you can afford a $10,000 toy, you can afford to build a copper floor for it.)
I arrived at Lexus’ Catalonian skatepark, which was the exact one that we’d seen in the teasers. The park is made out of wood that has been painted to look like cement, with an embedded magnetic track that had clearly been covered with some sort of plaster in an effort to conceal it. Strike one: the Lexus board can’t be used anywhere you want. Marty McFly would be disappointed.
After an introduction from Lexus officials, we learned that Lexus had hired an advertising agency to produce an ad featuring the hoverboard — so no, Lexus did not manufacture the hoverboard itself (strike two), and yes, the board was a publicity play (strike three). Lexus’ advertising agency got in touch with a group of scientists in Hamburg, Germany who had been working on maglev technology, and had them shift focus onto creating a hoverboard. After months of prototyping and refinement, the hoverboard you see in the commercial was born.
Liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors and magnets
Unlike the Hendo, which utilizes electromagnets in combination with the copper floor, the Lexus hoverboard works with liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors and magnets. Here’s the breakdown: the hoverboard is packed with ceramic tiles (the superconductors, composed of yttrium, barium, copper, and oxygen), which are cooled down to around -180 degrees Celsius using liquid nitrogen. In order to achieve levitation, the board must be resting on a set of magnets (i.e. the track), and planks of wood are placed under the board to determine its levitation height (the more wood placed, the higher it’ll hover — with a maximum of 4cm). Once the board reaches the critical temperature, the superconductors interact with the magnets in such a way that they get "trapped" within the magnetic field (known as flux pinning in the science world) and you’ve got yourself a hoverboard of sorts.
After the introduction, one of the scientists who worked on the project brought out a just-cooled hoverboard and placed it on the track. What I saw next stunned me — I almost couldn’t believe what I was looking at: 20 feet in front of me was a hoverboard that was being pushed back and forth along a track that ran through water. The board glided effortlessly with zero friction. They’d done it. They built a working hoverboard. What was it like to ride, though?
After this quick demonstration, I was directed to a platform where I could get a better look at the board up close. There it was, floating just an inch or two off the ground in silence, spewing nitrogen gas out the sides. Dozens of cameras fired off in the media pool as the the scientist ran his hand under the hoverboard and pushed it back and forth. It was finally time to ride.
One thing to note about the hoverboard is that it only stays "charged" (that is, it hovers) for 20 minutes, give or take, depending on ambient temperature and the weight of the rider. Once the liquid nitrogen evaporates, the board loses its superconductivity and it’s time to "recharge." Lexus actually had two boards in rotation — while one was being ridden, the other was being recharged nearby.
The board itself is about the size of a large skateboard (it reminded me of my personal 9-inch deck) and weighs about 20 lbs — much heavier than a traditional skateboard with wheels and trucks, but this one floats.
I placed my right foot on the board (I’m goofy-footed, which means my right foot is the one in front) and immediately noticed something important: it was very wobbly from side to side. It almost felt like I was trying to balance on a tightrope. I pushed with my back foot, like you would on a traditional skateboard, and instantly scraped the bottom of the deck against the ground. The smooth gliding I’d hoped for came only in short bursts, as finding balance proved to be a major challenge. I tried shifting my weight around and positioning my feet in different ways, but in the 10 or so minutes with the board, I managed to travel just a few feet (and never more) without the board scraping against the wooden park. My longest glide came when I placed my right foot on directly over the center of the board and left my left foot off the board.
While it was fun, it certainly wasn’t the hoverboarding experience depicted in Back to the Future. And this future doesn’t even exist, really, considering that the board is just a promotional tool for Lexus’ cars. Even if you can get past the limitations (hope you’ve got a liquid nitrogen tank handy!), it doesn’t really matter, since Lexus won’t sell you one of these things. What we got is movie magic — well, ad magic, in this case — and I got to experience that magic in person.
So the seemingly unattainable dream of the real Hoverboard — the one that will finally make me put away my skateboard, put on my self-lacing Air Mags, and never look back — is as alive as it ever was. Let’s go, Mattel. You’ve only got about five months to make this thing happen.