Sokon aspires to go from Chinese mini-buses to US EV leader

Using the brand SF Motors, Chinese utility vehicle maker Sokon builds out offices in Silicon Valley and Michigan to develop electric, autonomous cars.

Sokon launches its US SF Motors brand in a new Silicon Valley headquarters building.

As electrification and self-driving throws the automotive industry into a Wild West state of transition, the ground has become fertile for a new breed of startups. Chinese utility vehicle maker Sokon intends to take advantage of this environment with a new US-based brand called SF Motors, which will build and sell electric passenger cars.

Signifying its intent, Sokon built its headquarters in Silicon Valley and a development facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is on a hiring spree, advertising on its web site for positions ranging from a Supply Chain Manager to a Director of Autonomous Driving.

The time seems ripe for start-ups in the automotive space, as electrification increasingly takes hold through gasoline-electric hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric powerplants. Self-driving development also represent another new avenue for the automotive industry. These changes have already lead to a crop of startup automotive technology companies and automakers, with Tesla being a leading example.

In China, Sokon builds small utility trucks, vans and buses with combustion engines, which doesn't make it look like a natural fit to develop electric cars for the US market. However, Sokon's market cap in China of 15.88 billion yuan ($2.3 billion) gives it plenty of capital. 

Last year, the company bolstered its electric drive portfolio by acquiring California-based AC Propulsion, a developer of electric drive systems, along with two other electric drive companies. At the same time, Sokon signed Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard to a two-year contract to help it launch its US brand. 

Sokon says it will officially unveil its SF Motors brand "in the coming months", although hasn't said when it would detail the types of electric cars it intends to build.

Sokon Mini Bus

In China, Sokon manufacturers small utility vehicles and people transporters.