If you've been on social media or around teenagers within the last six months, you've probably seen someone riding a two-wheeled motorized scooter that looks like a Segway without the handlebars.
These scooters go by many names—Monorover, IOHawk, Phunkeeduck, Hyperwalk—but they're all essentially the same thing: battery-powered, gyroscopically-stabilized "personal mobility devices." And they're the hottest craze in Teenland. At this year's VidCon, famous Viners and YouTubers mounted these things by the dozen. Justin Bieber has been spotted riding one, as have Nick Jonas, Nicki Minaj, and a boatload of other celebrities. At a tech conference in Las Vegas this year, I saw a hacker get scolded by security for bringing his scooter onto the casino floor.
A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to try one. But the price presented a problem. These scooters generally go for $800 or more. One popular model, the IO Hawk, retails for a mind-boggling $1,799.
I wasn't willing to spend that much. But a friend of mine told me that I might be able to get a deal if I ordered straight from the source.
Most of these scooters, he told me, are made by the same few factories in China. Resellers buy them wholesale on Alibaba, slap their own labels on them, and sell them overseas for a huge markup. Some high-end models have extra options — Bluetooth speakers and custom paint jobs — but 90 percent of them are identical.
I went on Alibaba, searched for "self-balancing scooter," and was barraged by cheap options under $250. If you've never bought anything on Alibaba before, the process can be a bit bewildering. Alibaba is often called the "Chinese Amazon," but the buying and selling process is more like eBay's. You have to register for an account, find a seller willing to sell you the desired item in the desired quantity, send that seller your "business card" (in Alibaba-ese, your name, phone number, and shipping address) and wait for a quote. Once you get the quote and approve, you pay the seller directly through PayPal or another service, and the seller ships the item to you.
Most of the listings I found for "self-balancing scooter" looked identical. So I picked one called "Wholesale factory price IP54 self balance 17cm scooter wheels unicycle 2015 newest 2 wheels powered unicycle" — I can't link to it, since it has been taken down by the seller, but there are dozens of others if you search the same terms — and requested a quote. Several hours later, I got a message back:
Hello dear Kevin
Thanks for your inquiry, Really appreciate it, This is Alenda from Avellatech, So glad to know you have interest in our unicycle,
our unicycle price:
1—10pcs it is 218usd
10—-100pcs it is 214usd
So one pc is 218usd
Product is samsung 4400mAH battery
Warranty:1 year for motor and main body, and battery, within warranty, if these are bad, pls send back to us, we make up good one for you
Could you add my skype? we talk details
I added Alenda on Skype, and messaged her. She promptly messaged me back.
Despite her broken English and insistence on calling me "dear," I decided that Alenda probably wasn't ripping me off. (It's hard to feel totally secure when making Alibaba purchases, but her company had a "Gold Supplier" badge, and something called "Trade Assurance," a feature that provides some protections against scamming, both of which reassured me.) I gave her my shipping address and sent $323 to the PayPal address she provided. She said the shipment would arrive in 5 to 6 days.
While I waited, I asked Alenda how her scooters were selling.
After making the PayPal payment, I started feeling a little woozy. What if my scooter arrived from Shenzhen and it didn't work? What if it didn't arrive at all? I'd be out $323, and I'd be no closer to my goal of transporting myself like a #teen.
Luckily, a day later, the FedEx shipping confirmation arrived. And a week later, my scooter was sitting on the doorstep. After I unboxed my scooter and charged it overnight, I stepped on it gingerly, and began riding around my office.
The boards — which can go up to 10 miles an hour, with a battery that lasts for several hours — are controlled by two motors, one controlling each wheel. To begin moving, you simply shift your weight slightly forward, as if you were doing a calf raise. To make a turn to the right, you lean your left foot forward, and your right foot back. To turn to the left, you do the opposite.
Like a Segway, the wheels of these scooters are gyroscopically stabilized. So you don't have to expend a ton of energy trying to stay upright — the foot pads move as you move, and it's not hard to maintain your balance once you stop nervously overcorrecting. If you've ever gone skiing or Rollerblading, you'll get the hang of it in five minutes.
Here's Fusion editor-in-chief Alexis Madrigal taking his maiden voyage:
Wired's David Pierce (who paid $595 for his two-wheeled scooter — sucker!) warned readers that low-end scooter manufacturers often cut corners by putting substandard parts in to lower the price. I've been riding mine for nearly a day, and it seems pretty sturdy. The body is made of plastic, but the components inside are very heavy — this is not a throw-it-in-your-backpack kind of device. And I haven't experienced any mechanical failures yet — although one of my colleagues did bite it pretty hard on her first ride. (Which brings up a point of caution: yes, helmets are recommended. And really, they won't make you look any dweebier than riding a hands-free Segway in the first place.)
Do you need a two-wheeled scooter? Of course not. But they're actually pretty fun to ride. And if you want one, you don't have to shell out $800 or $900 as long as you're willing to brave Alibaba. $300 isn't nothing, but it's a small price to pay to experience the most futuristic transportation fad around.