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Europe: BMW Wheels Out Apps to Drive Electric-Car Buzz

BMW AG won’t bring its first mass-produced electric car to market before 2013. Online and on the road, though, the luxury auto maker is already racing to drum up potential consumers.

Its newest effort is an electric car-simulating smartphone application being promoted at the New York International Auto Show this week. Called BMW EVolve, the app lets drivers track how compatible their driving habits and daily traveling distances would be with a battery-powered electric vehicle, plus what they would save in potential fuel costs.

The app is just one move in a broader buzz-building campaign that BMW hopes will build demand for its first mass-produced all-electric city car, called the i3. “We need to attempt to understand [driver] behavior and create a culture first, and we need to start early and broad,” said Rich Steinberg, BMW’s North American electric car operations and strategy chief.

Auto makers typically only begin promoting new cars months before they go on sale, for fear a long buildup will cut into sales of existing models. But the uncertainty over how drivers will embrace the very different technology behind electric cars is turning the traditional marketing blueprint on its head.

BMW earlier this year launched a number of social media forums for electric-car enthusiasts and a four-part series of online documentaries featuring former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and other prominent people musing about the future of urban transportation. Later this year, it will begin delivering about 1,100 of an i3 pre-cursor, called the ActiveE, to U.S. and European test drivers who will be encouraged to tell neighbors, Facebook friends and anyone one else about their experiences driving it.

The German auto maker isn’t alone in the approach. General Motors Co and Nissan Motor Co. began building buzz around the new Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf via Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites more than a year before those vehicles went on sale last year. In January, Ford streamed the unveiling of its Focus Electric, due to hit showroom floors in late 2011, over its Facebook page for electric car fans.


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