Sep 13, 2021
A FEW WEEKS ago, I bought a new toy. $595 on Amazon, Prime shipping, showed up 36 hours after I clicked “buy.” It weighs 22 pounds, and, after about an hour of practice, I had it going top speed, about 6 mph. (It feels faster than it sounds.) I've fallen off it a million times, often after it does this weird seizure-crash thing that I can’t figure out how to stop or predict.
My new toy is called a “Two Wheels Smart Self Balancing Cheap Electric Scooter UK Drifting Board Electric (blue),” and it's kind of like a Segway—but with no handlebars. It's not a skateboard, but it's kind of like a sideways skateboard? It's like a scooter, ish? The world has mostly decided to call it a hoverboard. I don't know what to call it.
Whatever it is, I love it. And it's all Justin Bieber's fault. It just looked so fun in his Instagrams.
If you've been paying attention, you've seen it before. It's sort of a phenomenon. Here is a (very) partial list of celebrities who have tweeted, Instagrammed, or YouTubed themselves riding one in the last couple of months: The Biebs himself, Chris Brown (who is awesome at it), Nick Jonas, Zedd, Soulja Boy, Kendall Jenner, JR Smith, Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, Nina Agdal, David Ortiz, Karim Benzema, and Skrillex. It's been on the Tonight Show, and showed up at the NBA Finals.
Every time anyone uploads a video or picture of this scooter, the commenters all want to know two things: What's that called, and where can I buy it?
That's where it gets weird.
In late May, in front of a Fleet Week audience of military members, Jamie Foxx rolled onto the Tonight Show stage on a scooter. Once he figured out how to get off it, Foxx explained to Jimmy Fallon, "It's, uh, a PhunkeeDuck," as he rolled the board toward himself to make sure he had the name right. Fallon got on it, and did what everyone does their first time: wobbled jelly-legged for a minute, and then slowly inched around before getting comfortable.
That whole scene really annoys IO Hawk's Curtis Hedges. Because, he says, that scooter was not a PhunkeeDuck. It was an IO Hawk, his company’s product. Hedges tells me to look closely at the wheels, where there's clearly an "IO" logo in the center. He's laughing, too, as if he can hardly comprehend the idea that PhunkeeDuck isn't stealing. And he's right: PhunkeeDucks look just like IO Hawks, right down to the IO logos on their boards and wheels. That, Hedges says, is because they're exactly the same thing. "Put a sticker on it, call it a totally different name, and start selling."
That's exactly true, actually. The PhunkeeDuck guys don't even deny it. But they're quick to dispute the idea that they’re rebranding IO Hawk's board. "The owner of IO Hawk went around telling everyone he was the inventor of this product," PhunkeeDuck co-founder Matthew Waxman says, referring to IO Hawk CEO John Soibatian. "That's just completely false."
PhunkeeDuck and IO Hawk are the two biggest players in this nascent scooter market, but there are many others. There's Oxboard, Cyboard, Scoot, Future Foot, Monorover, Airboard, Freego, Esway, Airwheel, iEZWay, Overoad, and a hundred names more along the lines of Two Wheels Smart Self Balancing Kids Scooter for Sale Drifting Board Electric (blue).
Depending on which one you buy, you'll pay anywhere from $600 to $1,800 for a scooter. But make no mistake: They're all the same. The designs may vary slightly—sometimes the faux hubcaps are shaped in Mercedes-like triangles, sometimes there are five or six spokes—but like painting tiger stripes on your kitty cat, nobody’s getting fooled here.
The real story of the scooter doesn't begin with IO Hawk or PhunkeeDuck. It begins, as just about any modern technology story does, in China.
Before we go any further, I need to admit that I don't know, positively, where the scooter comes from. The Chinese manufacturing industry moves so quickly and with so little documentation that it's basically impossible to fact-check any company's cries of "first!"
But here's what I think I know: There’s a company called Chic Robotics, which is also known as Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology Co., Ltd, and I think it invented the scooter. (There's a scooter called the Hovertrax that predates it slightly, but it's not quite the same thing.) Chic's logo—the horizontal line on top of an oval that just so happens to look like "IO" when rotated 90 degrees—is plastered all over most versions of the board. And Chic's name keeps coming up when you talk to the people selling the thing.
The company was founded in 2013, born in connection with China's Zhejiang University. It was created to make stuff, obviously, but also to champion IP protection in China, to improve patents and copyrights and and foster what the company calls "sustainable innovation." It holds a series of patents related to the scooter, and has diligently (and apparently pointlessly) attempted to protect them.
Chic's first scooter was called the Smart S1. It debuted in August of 2014, with a goofy commercial that almost certainly isn't meant to be goofy. It shows a man walking down the hallway, laden with heavy books and a heavy heart, before finally being saved by the smooth ride of the Smart S1. It's like a bizarro take on a heartwarming Coke commercial.
In the fall of 2014, Chic took the S1 to the Canton Fair, China's largest trade show. This semi-annual extravaganza attracts more than 180,000 buyers from around the world, there to see tens of thousands of Chinese exporters hawk their wares.
Chic's supply of scooters disappeared quickly—everybody wanted one. Soon, people were riding them all over the gigantic convention center. The hordes of buyers and suppliers were all over the Smart S1. Distributors across the world noticed, and so did other factories in China. Before long Alibaba was littered with manufacturers offering the same board—often using the same images and promotional videos, their logos hastily Photoshopped over Chic's.
This manufacturing virality, where as soon as something is created it is immediately everywhere, isn't unique to two-wheeled self-balancing scooters. It's how Chinese factories make and sell everything from iPhone chargers to televisions to headphones. Or e-cigarettes, another recent favorite Justin Bieber accessory: Just about every brand is the same thing with a different label. "All you have to do is make a phone call to one of the six manufacturers or so in China that are producing these e-cigarettes," says James Monsees, CEO of e-cigaretteer Pax Labs, "and you’d say how much? And oh, I want it to be an orange tip on the end and say Orange on the packaging. It’s an hour-long conversation...and you’re in the e-cig business."
In many ways, that's one of China's greatest assets as an industrial country. From iPhones to Harry Potter to Starbucks to basically the whole country of Austria, China's ability to take anything and build it faster, cheaper, and maybe even better, is without equal. But China has made clear that it doesn't just want to copy Apple anymore—it wants the next Apple to be Chinese. That would require better patent protection, and better regulation from the government. "The political economic institutions and system in China make it so entrepreneurs can’t make profit by developing novel innovation," then-Georgia Tech professor Dan Breznitz told the New York Times in 2011. As it is, the reward for being first is still just being first to be copied.
Because the Chinese manufacturing industry is so centralized, anything new spreads like crazy through the supply chain. One manufacturer creates a product; another reverse-engineers it and makes it too. And that next company can make it cheaper and faster, because it has no R&D costs. In most cases, this endless game of product-telephone makes the product worse.
Jeff Wells, who sells a scooter he calls The Scoot, ticks off a number of corners he's seen factories cut. "Weaker motors, not as reliable batteries, gyro boards, improper motherboard design," Wells says. "There are a lot of areas where they can shortcut." He laughs when I tell him about my board's nasty tendency to randomly start shivering uncontrollably, before spinning completely out of control and shutting down.
"You probably, right now, have five manufacturers in China that are beginning to make these," Wells says. He's been importing products from construction materials to medical equipment for years, and says the key is quality control. "You’ve got to tour the facilities, you’ve got to see them manufacturing over the long-term basis." Because when factories take shortcuts, the problems that crop up can be hard to see in an online listing, and they can be devastating.
That's why the segway costs $695, when you can buy a seemingly identical device on Alibaba for $200 or so. (He thinks the magic price is somewhere in the $500 range, though, and says we'll be there by Christmas.) The craziest part? Wells is actually leaving a lot of money on the table. IO Hawk, an LA-based company with a virtually identical story (and product), sells its scooter for $1,799.99 and still can't keep up with demand. The PhunkeeDuck costs $1,499.99, and there's a waiting list to get one.