San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Nerdy 2-Wheeled Wonder Rolls Into Tropics

Traffic slows. People stare. Children point. Barking dogs fall silent.

What in the world is that woman riding? “I thought Americans loved the Segway,” said Chappell McPherson, 65. “But Costa Ricans are just nuts about it.”

Yes, the Segway, seven years after its melodramatic and anticlimactic launch in the United States, has finally glided down to Costa Rica.

McPherson and three partners were granted the exclusive Costa Rica distributorship for the two-wheel electronic personal transport vehicles, after three years of drawing up business plans and knocking on doors.

The first shipment of 12 finally made it through customs a few weeks ago, and so far McPherson and her daughter, Tami Buttenhoff, have been busy demonstrating the device to potential clients – and the odd curious neighbor around their Rohrmoser office.

Segway Costa Rica so far has not sold any of the machines. In the next few months, they’ll be making the rounds to luxury hotels, golf courses and security companies, extolling the virtues of the silent, fast, battery-powered transport.

A bare-bones version runs $8,500, with that price tag usually increasing to about $10,000 after a few popular extras are included, McPherson said. She added that the almost 100% markup over U.S. prices is almost entirely due to import taxes.

The new Segway version that McPherson and her partners are selling has come a long way from its slight and slightly nerdy progenitor.

Like the early version, the Segway x2 is basically a two-wheel cart powered by electric motors that carries one standing person.

The person controls the speed by leaning forward or backward, and a computer balances the contraption.

The driver holds onto and steers with a pair of handlebars jutting up from the cart.

The effect can be very Star Trek, with standing riders zipping silently along upright at speeds of up to 20 kilometers per hour.

The x2 has some important modifications, however, from the original Segway.

Beefy, all-terrain wheels give the device a wider stance and better traction for off-roading through a park or along a hiking trail.

Also on the new version, the handlebars control steering by tilting to the right and left.

Another version of the x2 is designed for golfers. It features turf-friendly tires and an attachment for hitching up a golf bag. The vehicles can run up to 19 kilometers on a single charge and are recharged by simply plugging them into a wall outlet.

The Segway i2 will also be available through Segway Costa Rica. That model is a more classic design: narrower, with thinner wheels and easier maneuverability both indoors and in large crowds.

McPherson, a grandmotherly figure with red hair and bright blue eyes, cuts an unlikely profile for a tech entrepreneur. She first became fascinated with the Segway when it came out in 2001, and she’s been exploring ways to exploit its potential ever since.

It was three years ago that she and her partners (Buttenhoff,Marcia Clanton of Santa Cruz, California, and McPherson’s niece, Renee McPherson of Portland, Oregon) settled on Costa Rica as the target market.

She arrived in Costa Rica for the first time in September, specifically to open the Segway distributor. Ecotourism and the large traditional tourism market both offer great rental opportunities, she said.

“I tell you, get (Segways) down by the cruise ships (in Limón). They’ll be running all year long,” she said.

The product has also piqued interest from luxury hotel owners and condo complexes for use by security personnel. McPherson said they are even in talks with the local police force and the national park system.

Some uses for the Segway in Costa Rica, however, have been more or less ruled out.

“We thought about offering them to commuters,” she said. “But here, that’s a little scary.”


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