It’s 2015, and for people of a certain age, that means one thing: hoverboards were supposed to be here by now. It’s because we came of age with the 1989 classic Back to the Future II, and while it’s a solid flick (way better than the third one, right?), the one gadget that really seared itself into our collective consciousness, more than the flying DeLorean, more than the holographic Jaws – hell, more than the time travel itself – are those brief moments where Marty McFly commandeers a Mattel hoverboard, and outwits futuristic bullies with pro-level skate moves through Hill Valley.
And with the “anniversary” of the movie just over the horizon – October 21, 2015, to be exact – there’s been more and more talk about actually building a hoverboard. And of all companies, Lexus (not Toyota, Lexus) claimed to have done it. After coming out with a teaser ad in June, which was dismissed as a PR hoax – what else could it be? – it gave race car driver and Jalopnik correspondent Robb Holland access to the board, and the verdict is in: It’s real, kind of.
Lexus chose to reveal it at a custom-built skatepark in Madrid, and with input from professional skateboarder Ross McGouran, it completed the board, known as Project SLIDE in under 18 months. And while footage of McGouran and the board gliding effortlessly over both concrete and water is incredible, it isn’t quite what it seems, at least not yet.
Lexus built the skate park in Madrid because, well, there’s really no other place in to world to ride its hoverboard. While it is nothing short of amazing, the board uses electromagnetic levitation, similar to the technology found on Maglev trains. But while the trains have rails to guide them, the hoverboard needs a throughly magnetized surface to operate on. That’s why the cement of Lexus’s beautiful skatepark is lined with hundreds of magnets. And the board isn’t exactly ready for Marty McFly to put it in his backpack either; it levitates thanks to 32 superconductor bulks packed inside the board, which need to be topped of with liquid nitrogen every 10 minutes – hence the smoke, and making it the thirstiest machine to ever wear a Lexus badge. Topped off, the board weighs a whopping 11.5 kilograms, or over 25 pounds.
But none of that matters, because Lexus did it, it’s proven that hoverboards are possible. One of the last companies to try its hand at a hoverboard, Hendo, was dismissed outright because it was big, unwieldy and loud. Lexus has built a recognizable board, that– while harder to control than its wheeled counterpart – still glides along silently, and behaves like a skateboard should. But while this means that in maybe a few years, with the right technological breakthroughs, we just might have our hoverboards, they aren’t likely to come from Lexus.
Believe it or not, Lexus isn’t a skateboard company. It’s the luxury arm of Toyota, the world’s largest automaker (or second largest, depending on Volkswagen’s sales in China), and it routinely gets trounced by its German competitors when it comes to that “cool” factor. Because a BMW, Mercedes, or Audi is considered to be something exclusive, teutonic and stylish, while for many, Lexus remains that tarted up Toyota your well-off grandparents drive. With PR campaigns like Project SLIDE, the company jumps to the forefront at that all-important intersection of cars and technology, and if wins a few young converts in the process, even better. Plus, with the lessons learned from the project, don’t be surprised if the forward-thinking Toyota finds a way to electromagnetic levitation them into automotive applications somewhere down the line. Hoverboards may still be a few years off, but with Lexus’s technology could hovercars be that far behind them?
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