In 1989, Back to the Future II dreamed of a 2015 in which teens everywhere would use hoverboards to get around. Strangely enough, 2015 has turned out to be the year when actual hoverboards are making their real-life debut.
Throughout the summer, Lexus released a series of promotional videos teasing audiences with its plans for a hoverboard called SLIDE (the latest video, which includes an endorsement by professional skateboarder Ross McGouran, is below). Those came on the heels of the Hendo hoverboard, a Kickstarter campaign promising $10,000 hoverboards to be shipped out this fall, and a much-hyped hoverboard by “Huvr Tech” that turned out to be a spoof (video).
Now, Lexus is promising to make good on its media blitz. In a video released on July 28, the Japanese carmaker put out a deliberately vague message: “See it August 5th.”
The project is a promotional tool for a yet-to-be-announced car—one that, incidentally, stays on the ground. Lexus has been clear that the hoverboard it’s developing isn’t for commercial use. (It also can’t be used just anywhere; you need a magnetic track on the ground that the board can hover over, similar to how maglev trains work.)
Nevertheless, the technology behind the board is interesting, and could inform the future of other hovering modes of transport, such as cars and trains. Here’s how it works: Similar to the Hendo hoverboard of Kickstarter fame, the SLIDE uses magnets to create a magnetic field and generate lift. Unlike the Hendo board, the SLIDE uses superconductors as opposed to a traditional conductor, which could make it easier to ride.
According to Lexus’s website, the hoverboard achieves “frictionless movement” by using “liquid-nitrogen-cooled superconductors and permanent magnets.” The interaction between the superconductor in the board and magnets in the ground creates something called the Meissner effect, achieving levitation that is stable in the face of, say, a light breeze.
That smoke emanating from the board in the image above isn’t just for show. It’s the liquid nitrogen used to keep superconductors in the board below their transition temperature. If the board warms up, it stops hovering and requires a refill of -321ºF liquid nitrogen. Unfortunately, all this makes the technology hard to transform into something everyday consumers would be able to use, since you’d need a large supply of liquid nitrogen and a skatepark with a magnetic floor to operate it.
As Durand told Quartz in June: ”It looks like it can go anywhere, but it really can’t.” In other words, Lexus is spending a lot of money to score some fleeting cool points.