But the big bustle is at the local level. Last week's show featured 174 new-energy vehicles, encompassing EVs and plug-in hybrids. Some 124 were developed domestically.
Homegrown companies, such as battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd., are seemingly stepping out of nowhere to become global leaders.
CATL has a $1.3 billion factory in the works that reportedly would go online as soon as 2020. It could catapult the Chinese supplier to being the world's top producer of lithium ion batteries.
"The shift toward new-energy vehicles, as a result of the strengthening NEV policies, has given China the momentum to overtake other countries in development, as well as in the fields of autonomous driving and connected cars," said Kazuhiro Kobayashi, Toyota's CEO for China.
"What impresses me the most is the sense of speed I have experienced in this country."
Ford's tie-up with Alibaba underscores that lightning pace. The companies agreed in December to explore new business models in retailing and mobility. By the end of March, they had opened the vending machine. Alibaba gave Ford exclusive rights to pilot the program for the first month. After that, the Chinese tech company will invite other automakers to join as it builds more test-drive towers around the country.
Ford's Stoneley said it's too early to say how it has affected sales. But one customer bought an Explorer crossover on opening day, March 26, and Ford has sold about 10 vehicles since then.
Ford says the real value comes from learning about facial recognition, big-data lead management, customer profiling and digital service integration at the feet of an e-commerce leader. It also drives traffic to Ford's store at Alibaba's Tmall online emporium.
Ford also will adopt Alibaba's AliOS in the Kuga crossover this year in China.
The platform is more powerful than anything offered in other countries, said Trevor Worthington, Ford's Asia Pacific vice president for product development. It is increasingly a must-have in China, where tens of millions are locked into Alibaba's online services for bill payment, social media, navigation, online booking, video streaming and much more.
"There are some elements of technology here that are ahead of the game compared with anywhere else," Worthington said. "Everybody around the world is watching."
Some 600,000 Internet-enabled cars already are running AliOS in China. And Alibaba says it wants half of the country's connected-car market in five years.
In the meantime, Alibaba says it is also on the prowl for overseas opportunities. Worthington said it's just a matter of time before similar systems pop up in other markets.
In China, the consumer culture of craving the latest, greatest gadgetry can be just as potent as government dictate. The result is a scramble to compete and game-changing technology.
"That's what the customers demand," Worthington said. "If we don't do it here, we're toast."