A few years ago, hoverboards drew a lot of attention from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Formally known as self-balancing electric scooters, hoverboards became an instant success because they combined practical mobility and enjoyment. But that success was not without some setbacks. When news stories in 2015 linked hoverboards to fires (which we wrote about here), the same popularity that drove sales also attracted public and government scrutiny.
While the CPSC typically does not discuss ongoing investigations, in January 2016, the attention around hoverboards drove then-Chairman Elliot Kaye to make public statements about the agency’s inquiries. And in February 2016, then-Acting Director of Compliance Robert Howell issued a public letter to manufacturers, urging them to test their products according to Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 2272, which would not become a formal voluntary consensus standard for another nine months. These statements were unusual. The public and congressional attention on alleged hoverboard fires drove the CPSC to be more public in its efforts.
Poised for the Next New Thing
With the hoverboard memory fresh in its mind, the CPSC is likely to get ahead of future potential emerging technology issues. One product that the agency may see as ripe for early intervention is a cousin of hoverboards: electric scooters. We last wrote about how scooter manufacturers have provided a roadmap for other technology companies to respond to complaints. Scooters share some features of regulatory interest with hoverboards – they’re both powered by lithium ion batteries, for instance – but they also have some unique features. Specifically, the wildly popular scooter-sharing rental model means scooters carry riders with varying levels of ability and knowledge about the product, presenting companies with the challenge of addressing rider safety without a readily available opportunity to warn or instruct them on scooters’ use.
Scooters are everywhere in many cities, creating both opportunities and litigation challenges for companies. States and municipalities have struggled to figure out how they can address the safety of riders and others, including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They have set a variety of rules on issues like how many scooters can operate, where they can go, and how fast they can move. Some cities are testing the waters carefully, using pilot programs to see how scooters could integrate with other modes of transport. These debates are usually about how scooter riders should ride – the rules of the road/sidewalk – but not about how scooters should be designed and built.
The CPSC has the authority to regulate the safety of scooters. In addition to the question of battery safety, CPSC staff and commissioners have expressed concerns about falls or other mechanical hazards, such as the consequences of potential structural failures. And while the agency is engaged, so far its activities have been modest. CPSC staff have collaborated on UL 2272 since it was issued in 2016. The standard now includes electric scooters under the term “Light Electric Vehicles,” but the standards committee has not adopted any scooter-specific provisions.
However, consumer advocacy groups are asking the government to pay more attention to allegations of injuries associated with scooters, which may pressure the CPSC to be more assertive. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) has urged the agency to conduct more research and seek recalls of scooters associated with injuries. The CFA has also asked Congress to give the CPSC a nudge. So far, groups like the CFA have not called for a mandatory product safety standard, but that possibility always exists.
How Scooter Companies Can Engage the CPSC
What’s going on in Washington presents scooter companies with the opportunity to ensure their voices are heard in these conversations. As with any CPSC-regulated industry, companies should comply with their obligations to report potential hazards and, as appropriate, recall products. Some companies have already conducted recalls, though seemingly without the CPSC’s public involvement. Companies should also continue to go beyond these case-by-case actions and ensure product safety issues are on their policy agenda in conversations with the CPSC, Congress, and other stakeholders.
For example, companies may want to set up introductory meetings with CPSC commissioners to build positive working relationships long before commissioners have a vote on a recall or a rule. Scooter companies may also want to engage at safety-related events to present themselves as thoughtful, responsible innovators.
Companies should also maintain their active involvement in voluntary standards bodies, namely with UL with respect to its 2272 standard on hoverboard and scooter electrical systems. Voluntary standards both help protect consumers and protect responsible companies against undercutting by less safety-minded market players. Currently, safety practices vary between companies. More uniformity can build consumer confidence and help establish the kind of “reasonably prudent company” benchmark that is key to litigation defense. Moreover, when companies work alongside the CPSC’s technical experts on the voluntary standards, they can build trust and rapport that can help future discussions.
Electric scooters are not going away. Their enormous potential in urban transportation is too valuable. But discussions about how to regulate scooters are just getting started. Scooter companies should make sure they are seated at the table; that is, as always, the best way to avoid being on the menu.