As we're less than a month away from 2015, several tech companies are jumping on the opportunity to sell you the future--as benchmarked by Back to the Future Part II. VR video glasses and power-lacing shoes are right around the corner--promise! Even the hoverboard is being pushed as a real thing. I wouldn't hold my breath for it. But Boosted's electric skateboard, which I've been testing for the past few weeks, has done a better job than most gadgets in giving me a sense that the future is here. It's really fun to ride, and practical, too. I've been able to use it in lieu of driving for running errands in my neighborhood. And that's coming from someone who previously had never skateboarded.
As with all great modern technological innovations, Boosted's boards work because of a seamless pairing of hardware and software. You can't just strap an electric motor on a standard longboard and call it a day. Likewise, you can't strap a piece of wood on an RC car and expect to ride it. You have to meld them in a way that makes sense and with the fewest compromises (eg. adding weight). On the hardware side, it looks like Boosted wanted to made a product that would be familiar to longboard riders first. The deck is a pretty large longboard with good flex, mounted low on custom 180mm trucks and using 75mm Orangatang wheels. I'm not experienced enough to evaluate those properties, but my housemate--who's a very proficient longboarder--confirmed that these longboard components were solid and good enough for him to skate comfortably, even unpowered.
Boosted's proprietary drivetrain that powers the skateboard (they sent the new Boosted Dual+ model) runs on two brushless outrunner motors on either side of the rear wheels. The motors are 1000W each, which provides a lot of torque, enough to push the high-end model up to 22 miles per hour and up steep hills (>25% grade). I'll talk about how that affects performance in a bit. The system is powered by a large flat lithium battery mounted to the bottom of the board, which Boosted has rated for six miles of travel, depending on your weight and average speed. It's a tightly designed drivetrain that doesn't add to the profile of the board, and puts the whole thing at 15 pounds. Heavier than a normal longboard, but not so much that you can't carry it around in one hand or strapped to a bag.
Another challenge of designing a motorized longboard is making it feel intuitive for both the people who already know how to ride one and new users. A lot of that secret sauce is in the software and how Boosted has programmed their boards, so you don't always get the motor's full strength and so it has practical limits. To test the Boosted Dual+, I tried using it to learn longboarding, as well as handed it off to my housemate to see if it could replace his longboard.
First, my own experience. The fears I have with skateboards and longboards are not knowing how to properly balance myself while push-kicking and how to stop. With a motor, the Boosted's longboard negates those problems. Propulsion is handled by the two motors, and actually controlled with a Bluetooth remote. The remote has a trigger which has to be depressed to activate the board, and a spring dial at the top is used to activate the motor in both forward and backward directions. The dial gives you analog control over power--I quickly learned not only to ease into speed but also to gently ease out of motion. Jogging the dial backwards is effectively used as a brake, which works well for downhill riding. The only weird thing for me was that my remote actually had its dial controls reversed. I called Boosted about the issue, and they said it was an anomaly that could be fixed with a software recalibration.
The remote lets you switch between four power levels. The beginner mode, which was already enough to jolt the board forward with my 160 pound frame on it, limits your acceleration and maxes speed to 11 miles per hour. I've become very comfortable with the acceleration and power of the second power setting, which lets me speed up to 16 miles per hour and tackle inclines. Expert and a max-power "sport" mode have max speeds of 20 and 22 mph, respectively, and are still beyond my capabilities. You can't change the power setting mid ride, which isn't an issue, but you also don't want to take on inclines beyond what the board recommends. For example, while on the intermediate setting, I was able to ride up a 10% incline, but the board chugged and I was wasting power efficiency (in the form of heat). The smarter thing to do was to step off the board at the bottom of the hill and power up to Expert mode to get more torque.
In addition to power settings, the remote lets you monitor the battery charge on the board, as well as its wireless connection (its range is about 20 feet). Boosted told me that they're planning to release an app that will let you monitor battery via Bluetooth, too. Ergonomically, the remote could have a better grip (maybe Sugru can help), and I found that I more often than not forgot to charge the remote than the board itself. On two occasions, I had a fully charged board ready to go, but the power on the remote dropped out. Unfortunately, it's not just a simple AA battery, and requires USB charging on its own.
On my first day learning the board, I took it to a concrete playground with a nice flat surface, and more importantly, no cars. The sudden feeling of thrust with you jog the throttle caught me off guard, but by the end of the afternoon, I was comfortably (and gleefully) cruising up and down the length of the yard and learning to make turns. When in motion, carving left and right turns with the board feels graceful and responsive--akin to snowboarding but on a flat surface. I even had a genuine Back to the Future moment when I cruised by two kids on skateboards who had to give me a double take. The absence of any manure trucks in the vicinity confirmed that I was Marty Mcfly, not Biff Tannen.
One week of practice later, and I felt comfortable enough to take the board off the playground and onto actual streets. My neighborhood in San Francisco is relatively quiet, with wide streets and plenty of bicyclists sharing lanes with cars. That's where I currently feel comfortable--using the Boosted on bike lanes and off main roads. It's been useful for short trips to the hardware store or grocery, and I judiciously alternate between riding it and carrying it a block or two depending on road and traffic conditions. 15 pounds isn't a lot to carry, but it's not something I would want to lug by hand for more than a few blocks. In suburban towns, I could totally see this as a viable alternative to biking for a short commute--the advantage being that it's lighter than a bike and something you could easily carry aboard public transit.
Plus, there are fewer things cooler than watching someone skate uphill without ever taking their foot off of a longboard. This past weekend, I took it down the long stretch of road along the city's Ocean Beach and up to the historic Cliff House, gathering more than a few onlookers. No wonder Boosted includes a pack of information cards that they encourage users to hand out to curious passersby.
Coming from the perspective of an experienced longboarder, my housemate was able to master the Boosted on his first ride out. After 30 minutes with the first two settings, he powered up to the Expert setting and zipped aggressively around our neighborhood. It's not the max speed that helps with that setting, but the torque for uphill riding. Most people skate in the 14-16mph range, anyway. He tells me that the weight of the board was what took getting used to the most--he wouldn't want to alternate between electric powered and push-kicked travel. You have to be in one mindset or the other.
While I've been testing the Boosted Dual+, my ability to ride a normal longboard hasn't improved at all. I still can't push-kick nor stop well--the ability to have a motorized brake assist on the Boosted is just too convenient. But I am having a ton of fun cruising with this electric longboard--the amount of mental and physical control it requires makes riding it both joyful and thrilling. The $1500 price on the high-end Dual+ model may be difficult to justify unless you can use it for commuting, and Boosted also has a new $1000 single-motor model as well (18mph and 15% inclines max). We'll be shooting a video review of this soon after I get more practice!