Alibaba's cat could transform test drives

Test drive initiative is just part of a wider digital digital development strategy with the automotive industry.

With Ford in the driving seat, Alibaba is combining its TMall app with impressive car-sized, cat-shaped 'vending machines' to change the entire test drive experience for China's car buyers.

The project, which also has interest from the likes of BMW, Volvo and Audi, combines a range of technologies to provide a seamless experience for prospective purchasers.  Using the online retail giant's TMall shopping smartphone app, consumers can select a vehicle they want to test drive. Ultimately, they will even be able to just point their phone at an interesting vehicle model they see on the street and the app will search for availability of a test drive vehicle.

As part of the booking process, the driver snaps a 'selfie' for face recognition.  At the appropriate time and date, the drive arrives at the 'vending machine' - a number of which are planned to be built in cities across China - and the face recognition software identifies them and selects their car. The car can then be driven for up to three days.

The project is just one of a number of initiatives that are likely to emerge from a new partnership between Ford and Alibaba. Working with four of the Chinese company's divisions, the US car maker will also look at using cloud computing, artificial intelligence and digital marketing technology to boost a range of e-commerce-driven retail opportunities for Ford products specifically, but also for the car industry in general.