SF Motors prepares to pounce on U.S. EV market
SAN FRANCISCO ¡ª SF Motors has been quietly setting up shop in the United States, establishing a manufacturing presence and acquiring talent.
SF Motors is a two-year-old subsidiary of Chinese automaker Chongqing Sokon Industry Group.
With its corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., an assembly plant in Indiana and a research facility 45 minutes outside Detroit, the company plans to introduce premium electric cars to the United States this spring.
The company hopes to avoid the mistakes of rival Chinese EV manufacturers who launched their U.S. subsidiaries with flashy press conferences, then quickly crashed and burned.
In August, EV startup Faraday Future ¨C which is backed by Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting ¨C halted plans to build a $1 billion (6.7 billion yuan) assembly plant in Nevada.
Yueting¡¯s other company, LeEco, also laid off hundreds of U.S. employees in May. LeEco had planned to market smartphones, televisions and electric cars in the United States.
SF Motors, which employs many former LeEco and Faraday Future workers, said it has learned from its competitors' mistakes.
The company will avoid over-the-top press events until it has the product and infrastructure to back up its announcements, an SF Motors spokeswoman said.
But the company continues to expand in the U.S. market. In October,
SF Motors acquired Inevit, a battery and electric powertrain startup founded by Tesla Inc. co-founder Martin Eberhard. Last month, it also acquired the former AM General assembly plant in Mishawaka, Ind.
Analysts view SF Motors as a legitimate EV competitor in the U.S. market.
"It's a company of highly capable, globally minded people who know how to quickly get things done in terms of securing technology," said Michael Dunne, president of Dunne Automotive, a Hong Kong
investment advisory company, and an expert on the Chinese auto industry. "They're moving very fast, with a worldly view."
Sokon, SF Motors' parent company, is a relative newcomer to the auto industry. Founded as a privately funded motorcycle spring manufacturer in 1986, Sokon joined the Shanghai stock exchange in 2015.
It began making cars the same year, when it entered into a joint venture with state-owned Dongfeng Motor Group to produce minibuses and low-cost passenger vehicles.
Sokon has grown quickly. Last year it sold 380,000 cars in China, and in January it won one of 15 government licenses to produce EVs in China.
Other Chinese ventures in the U.S. have relied on the deep pockets of billionaires and other investors ¨C with mixed results.
Jia Yueting, who built his fortune with a Netflix-style internet streaming service in China, has had no success in the United States. In March, he put LeEco¡¯s Silicon Valley headquarters up for sale, and Faraday Future may be near bankruptcy.
Lucid Motors, an EV startup founded by a former Tesla executive, has received funding from LeEco and Chinese carmaker BAIC and is reportedly searching for more money to launch its flagship sedan, the Lucid Air.
Nio is set to launch its first vehicle, the ES8 electric SUV, in mid-December. The company raised $1 billion in a funding round led by Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings.
SF Motors' U.S. headquarters, which houses about 150 employees, is nestled among numerous high-tech suppliers and automotive r&d centers in Silicon Valley.
The company also has a research facility in Ann Arbor, Mich., and it runs vehicles at MCity, a test track for self-driving vehicles on the campus of the University of Michigan.
On Nov. 2, SF Motors completed its acquisition of the AM General plant in Indiana, where Mercedes-Benz and Hummer once manufactured vehicles. In a press release, SF Motors said it would retain all of the plant's workers.
The company also acquired Inevit in October. The three-person battery startup led by Eberhard has been developing a battery module that could power a variety of vehicle types.
The agreement gives SF Motors access to invaluable powertrain expertise.
"Martin is a visionary about battery-pack technology, motor technology, power electronics and electric drivetrains," wrote Mark Platshon, managing director of Icebreaker Ventures, in an email to Automotive News. "I think he has some good ideas on how to make EVs more manufacturable and cost-effective."
Its progress developing automated vehicles also will be an indicator of its success, as hands-free driving becomes a differentiator among established luxury brands, Platshon said.
And SF Motors won't be competing against the legacy auto industry alone.
"New Chinese EV makers are flying everywhere," Dunne said. "But [SF Motors] has an idea with smart people behind it, local government support, and access to technology in Michigan and California. They're putting the pieces together and moving fast."
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