Reasonable Doubt: We were promised hoverboards

Hoverboards sighted in Vancouver! Kevin Yee examines whether the newest trend of hoverboards, self-balancing boards, and motorized unicycles are legal.

Great Scott! Last month, we entered the future. Rather, we went back to the future.

Ask any fan and they will explain that October 21, 2015, was the day that Marty McFly time-traveled to from 1985 in the Back to the Future movies. Those ‘80s movies made plenty of predictions for 2015. How accurate were those predictions? How far have we come in the three decades since those movies came out?

If you walk around downtown Vancouver long enough, you’ll catch a glimpse of one of those predictions. I’m talking about the people seemingly hovering on small motorized platforms. You can see them zipping around pedestrians like a mogul skier. If it’s the first time you see this, it’s pretty startling. From the waist up, you’d think they were levitating! But look a little closer and you’ll see they aren’t actually hovering above ground. Still, it’s pretty darn close to the real thing.

There’s no universal name for these transportation devices. That’s because there are a number of different manufacturers and they each have their own models. There’s a “self-balancing two-wheeled board” that looks like a skateboard except it moves forward in the direction the rider’s feet are pointing. I’ve seen a “self-balancing uni-cycle” that looks like a Segway without the handlebars. I’ve heard them referred to as hoverboards and personal transportation robots.

Regardless, there are a few common features: an electric motor, gyroscopes/sensors that allow for self-balancing, and an impressive top speed of 10 to 20 kilometres per hour. You lean forward to speed up and lean back to slow down. They turn by sensing your weight shift between your feet. According to one distributor who has been selling these since April, these devices are still pretty new in North America but they have been gaining popularity in Europe and Asia.

I’ve been seeing these devices more and more on Vancouver’s sidewalks, and with any new trend, there is an interesting legal perspective. Does the law treat this as a vehicle like a Vespa scooter? Or does it consider it a toy like a Razor kick scooter? The answer has plenty of implications. It would determine if they belong on the road or the sidewalk. And if a rider isn’t following such rules, he or she could be partially or entirely at fault in an accident. These issues matter if lawsuits get started.

Under B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act, these devices are generally going to be considered a motor vehicle. Under this Act, motor vehicles using B.C.’s roads must be insured and registered. According to the ICBC website, the problem is this: generally these “low-powered vehicles” don’t meet provincial safety standards. As a result, they won’t be insured or licensed for road use.

So if they aren’t allowed on the roads, then maybe they’re like Razor kick scooters. Maybe riders should stick to the sidewalks? Think again. B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act bans vehicles on sidewalks. It can be exempted by municipal bylaws. In Vancouver, however, the bylaws aren’t very friendly to riders. Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-Law No. 2849 has, with few exceptions, a pretty wide ban on any vehicles on its sidewalks.

I hate to be a Grinch to those adding hoverboards to their Christmas wishlists, but for now, riders are at the mercy of their city’s bylaws. Vancouver isn’t the only city to disapprove. Officials in New York and London recently declared self-balancing scooter boards illegal in their jurisdictions.

Riders are in a difficult position. It’s a case where something new and exciting is not readily accepted in the existing law. Perhaps authorities will turn a blind eye for now. But things could change as these self-balancing boards and uni-cycles become more common. Or maybe someone gets seriously hurt on one and the news story gets a lot of attention. Authorities may eventually clamp down on their use in public places.

The question then becomes whether the laws should be changed to embrace this new technology. To get the necessary political will, there has to be enough support from the riders. But since the existing laws place the devices in a legal grey area (at best), that may be a tall order. How could they take off in the mainstream if the laws are so restrictive? That is the dilemma.

While the prophecies were partially right—we’ve got a version of the hoverboard today—it’s unclear whether this will ever truly get off the ground.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.