Lexus isn’t the only company with a hoverboard. Google X director Obi Felton, who heads the department responsible for such moonshots as self-driving cars, smart contact lenses, and Internet-disseminating balloons, revealed at the Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris (courtesy of Engadget) that researchers discovered a way to levitate carbon-based materials on magnets. But don’t expect their work to make it into a product you can buy — Felton said the technology’s limitations and niche application led the team to scrap it.
The millions of folks with fond memories of Back to the Future Part II may find that disappointing, but Felton had well-founded reasons for deciding not to pursue the hover tech. Unlike the boards that pervade science fiction, Google’s concept, much like Lexus’ Slide, required a series of magnets to float. The team at Google X couldn’t think of a use case beyond enthusiasts within the “skater crowd,” Felton said.
Google’s prototype presumably relied on superconductors, materials that when sufficiently cooled transmit electricity without resistance. Superconductors suspended in a metallic field are a fairly close approximation of levitating objects, but they aren’t the most practical foundation for a hoverboard. Keeping them in place requires a source of magnetism and constant cooling, usually with liquid nitrogen.
Still, that hasn’t stopped some companies from iterating on the idea. The Hendo hoverboard floats above metal sheets using a downward-facing array of superconductors, but it’s not efficient or cheap — it uses 40 watts of power per 2.2 pounds of weight, around a quarter of the energy use of a helicopter, and costs $10,000.
The technology underlying modern-day hoverboards will undoubtedly improve — Hendo’s already working on a newer version of its product, and an independently constructed, propeller-based machine recently beat the Guinness World Record for farthest distance traveled on a hoverboard — but it’ll probably be a long time before a hoverboard like anything we’ve seen in movies comes to market.