Andy Green loves riding electric skateboards so much he blew up his apartment trying to build one.
Skateboards are motorized now because of a key innovation: the lithium-ion battery, which looks like an oversized Energizer. The more you have, the faster and farther you can go. Green was linking 108 of them together when the whole array exploded in his hands.
"It shot up like a volcano," Green, 31, says. "Molten metal hit the ceiling." The blast burned the upholstery off his dining room chairs, but he survived without a scratch. "Luckily, I had renter's insurance."
He took the money and bought a new board. He couldn't be without one.
Green lives at the red-hot core of a fast-growing trend: e-boards. People like him spend thousands of hours, and just as many dollars, building boards that deliver more speed and range. The technology improves every month, so there is always something to buy: more batteries, higher-powered motors, or more reliable controllers, handheld wireless devices with buttons to accelerate and, more importantly, brake.
Electric scooters are ubiquitous on Portland's streets, and e-bike sales are soaring. E-boards aren't as common, but more are showing up on our roads (and sidewalks).
Enthusiasts use them for their morning commutes—Green used to ride from Vancouver to work in Portland over the Glenn Jackson Bridge, regardless of weather. There are races, including an uphill version of the Tour de Maryhill, where traditional skaters belt down the famous Maryhill Loops Road just north of the Columbia River in Washington. A 450-member group called the Portland EBoarding Crew meets on Friday nights near OMSI and goes tearing around town on their rigs—that includes skateboard-style vehicles, electric unicycles and "one wheels," which have a single fat wheel in the middle and don't require a remote to operate.
And you don't have to fire up a welding iron to get involved. There are plenty of off-the-rack boards that arrive in the mail ready to ride. Among the least expensive is the RazorX Cruiser for $171.13 at Walmart. But you get what you pay for: It lasts 40 minutes on a charge and only goes 10 mph.
Compare that to what Green says is the Lamborghini of e-boards: the Nazaré Lonestar, made by Lacroix Boards in Montreal, Canada, which costs $3,900. The battery lasts for 60 miles, and the board reaches a top speed of "more than you need," according to the company. One reviewer says it can hit 39 mph.
As one might expect in a subculture-prone city with a long manufacturing tradition, Portland has a thriving e-board scene. And during the pandemic, it appears to be growing.
"We've seen a big uptick because of COVID," says Jeff Johnson, co-founder of Hoyt St Electric Skate, which manufactures ready-to-ride e-boards from curvaceous, sustainable bamboo at a shop in Southeast Portland. "People want to get outside and do something."
And commuters don't want to ride a bus or subway, Johnson says. He sells most of his boards to customers in larger cities, like San Francisco, L.A., and New York.
Johnson, 59, got into the e-board business after a long career at Nike, where he worked in product innovation. Hoyt St is one of two marquee makers of e-boards in Portland. The other is Metroboard, started way back in 2003 by Ilan Sabar, a Stanford University-educated mechanical engineer who worked for seven years at Hewlett-Packard. Hoyt St's boards sell for $1,999. Metroboard's start at $2,574.
Along with batteries, the technology that made e-boards possible were super-efficient electric motors. Johnson gets his from KDE Direct, a company in Bend that manufactures them for military-grade drones and underwater rovers—putting one on an e-board is like mounting a GE90 jet engine on a Ford Pinto. The housings for all components on Hoyt St's boards come from RapidMade Inc., an industrial 3D printing company in Tigard.
While its boards surely impress, Hoyt rocked the e-board world with its remote control, a device Steve Jobs would have coveted. It looks like a bamboo hockey puck with buttons. A supple wheel on the side controls acceleration and braking. It works with other boards, too.
"Hoyt's remotes are best in class," says Andrew Dresner. He got into e-boarding two and a half years ago because he didn't want to commute to his job in the Pearl District from his house in Southeast Portland in pre-COVID traffic. A robotics engineer, Dresner retrofitted a standard board with motors and electronics and hit the road. He's been building boards ever since and has a new company called Derelict Robot that makes components.
Many accidents, he says, are caused by crappy remotes. They can lose their wireless connection to the board, which is like having the pedals on your car suddenly stop working. E-board remotes use the same wireless frequency as Bluetooth devices, and if there are too many cellphones or Wi-Fi signals around, the remote can get confused.
"I've seen so many accidents that could have been prevented," says Dresner, 36, who likes to rip up and down Mount Tabor in his spare time.
Dresner wants to make the rest of the industry safer with a new open source project called the FreeSK8 Foundation that will develop technology for e-boards and make it available to the world for free, to be improved, like the Linux operating system. Hobbyists who hack boards together from parts need more guidance to make safer machines, he says.
Dresner adds that he's lost 35 pounds since he started e-boarding. Muscling a 40-pound board through turns takes stamina—so does maintaining a squat for 45 minutes at a time, because you can't ride with straight legs.
Best of all, Dresner barely uses his car anymore. Between his e-board and his e-bike, he doesn't need it. Transportation experts hope more commuters follow his lead, even with skateboards, which many cities prohibit because of perceived danger to pedestrians.
"There is an anti-skateboard mentality in most cities," says John MacArthur, a research associate at Portland State University's Transportation Research and Education Center. "We should be doing as much as possible to encourage these kinds of vehicles and to give them safe spaces to operate. Anything that gets people out of the car is great."
For Andy Green, his e-board is a lifeline. He's had trouble keeping a driver's license, ever since he took his mom's car to rugby practice before he was old enough to drive. But hell, he'd rather e-board most places than drive anyway.
"It's an escape," he says. "It's pure Zen."