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.