MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Four years ago, BMW unknowingly snagged an advocate -- and a valuable source of painstakingly detailed data on the first electric car it was testing in the United States, the Mini E.
And it was all free. That's because Tom Moloughney, who owns an Italian restaurant in Montclair, N.J., wanted to ditch his Toyota Tacoma pickup and Mercedes-Benz ML crossover for something with better fuel economy.
Today BMW board members, top executives and engineers know Moloughney, who has logged 130,000-plus miles all told in the Mini E and BMW ActiveE. Through the frustrations with the two test vehicles, which weren't intended for production, Moloughney, 46, has become something of an electric vehicle expert. He is one of the consumers BMW has turned to repeatedly during the development of the i3 EV, a five-door hatchback that goes on sale in March.
Moloughney has bombarded BMW with meticulous notes detailing range, outside and battery temperature, charge levels and reams of other information about his trips. He has done surveys of other BMW battery-electric drivers, started three Facebook pages devoted to BMW's electric cars and initiated several blogs viewed worldwide. He created an instant electric car family for BMW.
Moloughney's relationship with BMW is not unique. Other car companies, including General Motors and Nissan Motor Corp., have connected with consumer EV enthusiasts for data, testing and marketing. They say such true believers not only spread the EV gospel but help them work through kinks in technology.
"It is useful having an advocate. Imagine I tell you how great the i3 is," said Manuel Sattig, BMW AG's project manager for the i EV subbrand. "You could get the same answers from Tom, but it sounds more authentic."
BMW calls Moloughney and its other electric car lessees "electronauts."
"From them, we learned what customers demand and what they and others are looking for," said Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America. "Otherwise it would have been guesswork."
The Mini E trial began in mid-2009 with 400 cars that were leased in New Jersey, New York and California. The ActiveE, based on the 1-series sedan, started in 2012. The program uses 700 cars in New Jersey, New York, Boston, Hartford, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento and ends this year. Each participant was selected by BMW.
The experience isn't cheap: Moloughney had lease payments of $850 a month for the Mini E, which dropped to $600 after the first year, and $499 per month, plus $2,250 down, for the ActiveE that he's still driving.
Other automakers have found that early EV adopters are useful advocates. GM used consumers for the launch and development of its electric EV-1, produced from 1996 to 1999, and the Volt plug-in hybrid that debuted in 2010. Nissan did the same for the Leaf EV that also debuted in 2010.
Erik Gottfried, Nissan's director of EV sales and marketing, says Nissan made changes to the Leaf based on feedback from its consumers and its advisory board.
Among them: Nissan made the exterior mirrors wider; moved the hand brake from between the front seats to the floor to increase storage space; added a light to the hood of the charge port; and added a remote access feature to unlock the port from the key fob.
Nissan plans a feature on its Web site for the spring called "Don't ask us, ask someone who drives one."
What do carmakers gain with this indirect marketing through early-adopters and advocates?
"It is a big trend among carmakers to think of how to connect or reconnect in a direct way with customers," said Jean-Francois Tremblay, director of the Global Automotive Center at Ernst & Young in Detroit. "They are using electric vehicles, being a new product, as a platform to test how do we talk and engage the customer directly.
"Maybe that customer advocate angle is a less expensive way to broaden that customer awareness."
Chelsea Sexton, a Los Angeles electric-car advocate and former GM marketing manager, has been active with both GM and Nissan. Sexton believes in the importance of "using the early true believers."
She helped put together a 13-member advisory board for GM's Volt. Members were the first, other than GM employees, to drive the Volt. Problems happen with new technologies, and "the early adopters tend to be more tolerant of that stuff, and they often want to be the one to have figured it out and told the company about it," Sexton said.
"They insist, as payment for that tolerance, on having an ongoing dialog with the company."
And that is certainly true of Moloughney.
Moloughney is an amicable man, well known in the New Jersey commuter town in which he runs Nauna's Bella Casa restaurant. He has no automotive technical training and says he's not a motorhead, although he has owned a Porsche Boxster and a turbocharged Mazda RX-7. He researched hydrogen and EVs in mid-2008, looking at "anything to reduce my dependence on oil."
The digital application for lease of a Mini E electric caught his eye.
"I looked at it as more of a novelty and didn't know if it would make my driving needs better -- or make it up a hill," he said. "I bit the bullet."
He got the Mini E in June 2009. The problems started nearly immediately.
BMW sent the lessees a 220-watt charger for installation by a licensed electrician. But Moloughney's local government inspector rejected the unit. BMW's cable and plug came from a German company and weren't UAL approved.
"A lot of the municipalities started failing them," Moloughney said.
His town nixed the system twice. BMW had to convince numerous municipalities that the system was safe. In Moloughney's case, that took six months. The system was changed for the ActiveE.
Richard Steinberg, BMW's first head of the electric car program, called each of the pioneers with installation problems and assured them BMW would help, Moloughney said. BMW further endeared itself to him by waiving the lease fee until the charger was approved. That ended up taking six months.
Steinberg, who is now CEO of BMW's DriveNow car sharing program in the United States, gave Moloughney his cellphone number and told him to call if he had problems or suggestions. An advocate was born.'Enormous' data logs
Call he did. And with Steinberg's blessing, Moloughney launched a Facebook page for the Mini E and later for the ActiveE, as well as several Internet blogs. BMW gave Moloughney the first ActiveE at a ceremony at its headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Moloughney became very diligent with data. "I recorded every time I would plug in the car," he said. "More than once a day I would write down the miles I drove, outside temperature, state of charge when I started and finished and the average speed of charging. I quickly accumulated a tremendous amount of data.
"I would have the engineers ask if I would send the data logs. It was more comprehensive than their logs."
BMW used him as a media contact. He answered reporters' questions at the New York auto show in 2011. When BMW unveiled the ActiveE in Munich, he was there talking to journalists.
Engineers and executives showed up at his restaurant to eat and talk E cars. Moloughney met with engineers and executives all the way up to Ian Robertston, BMW AG board member for sales and marketing.
Robertson took him to dinner in New York and picked his brain about the sales side. Robertson asked for copies of his notes, especially things on "what BMW needs to do to connect with customers," Robertson said.
Robertson was impressed by the detailed data Moloughney had accumulated: "He sent me an enormous packet of stuff every six months."
One decision BMW made based on its own trials and advice from electronauts was to stick with a range of about 100 miles on one charge for the i3. That meant BMW could avoid going the route competitor Tesla took by adding range with bigger, more costly batteries.
"We knew from them [electronauts] that the average American consumer would drive 40 miles a day," Willisch said.
The i3 has a range of 80 to 100 miles on a charge. BMW did decide to offer a gasoline two-cylinder 650cc range extender for $3,850. Sattig said the range extender is for "peace of mind" because of range-anxiety concerns.
Another need was a thermal system to preheat the battery in cold weather or cool it in hot weather to prevent the range from decreasing, Moloughney said. When the battery temperature of the Mini E rose to 115 degrees, the Mini E would not take a charge.
Another key message from electronauts: Improve the heating system. Moloughney said he and other lessees drove wearing heavy winter clothing, even in milder weather, because using the Mini E heater cuts its range.
"I suspect the engineers knew this -- it was a shame," he said. "I had to decide, do I stay warm or drive farther?"
Moloughney urged BMW to have a more robust, quicker charging system with higher wattage. The i3 has a 22kwh lithium ion battery that will recharge in three hours from a 220-volt 30-amp charger. BMW also offers an optional quick charger that juices it up to 80 percent in 20 minutes. BMW has not announced the cost.
An optional eco mode was suggested to preserve energy, Moloughney said. The i3's drive modes include Eco and Eco-Plus, which minimize electrical use except for the drivetrain.
But one key concern still nags at Moloughney and other electronauts: whether BMW will sell the car differently than a gasoline or diesel vehicle.
"When Nissan introduced the Leaf they plopped it in the showroom with other gas cars," Moloughney said. "A customer buying a Leaf needs three times more details.
"The salespeople are there to sell cars; they won't have the time."
Sexton agrees. Car companies and dealers "are used to a paradigm where you buy a car and you go away," she said. "Electric cars are different. It is proven this early generation of drivers want to be part of this. They feel they are spreading the movement, growing the driver base, they want to be ambassadors.
EV buyers are different, Sexton says. They're eager to contribute to EV efforts but need company attention: "Participating with them keeps that going. They are the best marketing tool these companies will ever have."
BMW hasn't detailed sales plans for the i3, which has a base price of $42,275 including shipping. Dealership training starts in January.
BMW has promised its ActiveE lessees they'll get the first i3s that arrive in the United States, Moloughney said. It will offer an Electronaut Edition i3 with special features and perhaps a color that won't be available to other buyers.
Moloughney is like a kid before Christmas. He can't wait to buy one -- and it will probably have "every option offered" in "laurel gray with BMW i blue accent."