SF Motors, a Chinese-based electric-only auto manufacturer, unveiled two new EVs at a launch event in Silicon Valley Wednesday. One model, the SF5, could be available as soon as 2019.
The announcement realizes a dream that founder and CEO John Zhang has harbored since his first time driving an electric vehicle.
“It’s better than any sports car I’ve ever driven,” he said at the event. “It was beautiful. It changed my life.”
Hyped-up car unveilings have become a Silicon Valley trope. During the SF Motors event — basically a press release in Coachella’s Sahara tent — the company claimed a 300-mile range, proprietary battery cells and powertrain, and “protective autonomy” features.
The range alone puts the SF5, a midsize premium crossover, in league with Tesla models. A variety of motor configurations, with the option to include up to four motors in the full-sized performance crossover SF7, also offers over 1,000 horsepower.
The “protective autonomy” system includes a sensor suite and light detection and ranging technology to drive “with little input from humans,” according to chief technology officer Yifan Tang. The company said its human interface uses artificial intelligence to adapt to the user's driving style. Those systems are already undergoing road tests in China, California and Michigan and should hit the mainstream market in 2020.
“As much as we thrive on developing new ideas, our technology is meant for the roads, not the lab,” said Tang.
Over the last couple years, SF Motors has focused on building the models introduced Wednesday. It built up its presence in the U.S. by opening a Silicon Valley headquarters and a Michigan R&D facility. The company also acquired battery startup InEVit Inc., founded by Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard, who is now the company’s chief strategy officer. It also purchased an automotive plant in Indiana that has produced cars for Mercedes-Benz and Hummer.
SF Motors plans to pump out 200,000 cars per year. (Tesla's struggles to get more than 1,000 cars a week out of its factory are a reminder of how difficult it would be to reach that target.)
To attempt that volume, the company has secured a roster of suppliers including Siemens, Samsung SDI, LGC, AFT, Bosch, Infineon Technologies and Dürr. Chief Production Officer James Finn said the body shop and quality control division at its manufacturing centers are 100 percent automated and the assembly shop is highly automated. The two plants will still employ about 3,500 people, but those workers, in addition to using traditional auto manufacturing skills, will also learn how to train robots and optimize data.
SF Motors also said it would share its technology in the form of “win-win partnerships” by offering its powertrain to other manufacturers in order to help new, promising technologies scale.
“We aim to be the company that shares integrated technology solutions and provides the manufacturing expertise to make more EVs a reality,” said Zhang during the launch event. “This is a race everyone can win.”
SF Motors joins a group of traditional automakers hoping to claim a slice of the growing EV market. Volvo will sell only electric or hybrid cars as of 2019. Volkswagen announced in March a $25 billion investment in battery supplies and technology to buttress its EV agenda. Both Ford and General Motors committed to new lines of electric vehicles by early 2020.
Still, the road ahead is marked by plenty of potholes.
Earlier this month, a self-driving Uber fatally hit a pedestrian in Arizona, stoking debates about the safety of autonomous vehicles. Uber announced this week it would not renew its permit to test such vehicles in California. (SF Motors still has a permit to test on public roads in the state.)
The Trump administration is also expected to announce this week that corporate average fuel economy standards set out by the Obama administration should be loosened. Though carmakers are already dropping billions on developing new electric models and promising to electrify their fleets, they’ve also pushed for less stringent federal emissions standards.
As Julia Pyper reported in Greentech Media, automakers say fewer consumers are interested in fuel-efficient cars than in SUVs or pickup trucks. While EVs are rising in popularity, consumers still favor traditional cars.