The three-year partnership will trial opportunities in areas like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, digital marketing, and online retailing. That online component will involve Ford directly selling vehicles on Alibaba's Tmall online store — a new avenue for the carmaker that will need discussion with Chinese Ford dealers to manage. Even more adventuresome, Ford will offer vehicles for sale in giant "automotive vending machine" kiosks Alibaba will build all over China. And the vending machines are built to look like cats.
One of the issues holding online car shopping back in China is that buyers can't see and touch the car they're interested in. An Alibaba spokesman said the vending machines address that drawback by providing Chinese buyers a hands-on experience as well as test drives, and the entire experience works through an app.
A potential buyer could scan a car they see on the street into the app. The app would direct them to a vending machine that has they car they're interested in. Once at the vending machine — which is unstaffed and all digital — the buyer would use facial recognition or a log-in code to get the car out of the machine. Then the customer could take the vehicle out for a three-day test drive, or buy the car outright with a 10 percent down payment and financing through Alibaba's Alipay affiliate.
Any wanna-be machine user needs to meet certain criteria: They must have a credit score of at least 700 on China's Zhima state-sponsored "social credit system" — the same system that ensnared Faraday Future backer Jia Yueting — and they need to be an Alibaba Super Member. Car shoppers can only test drive one of each model, and will get a maximum five test drives in the first two months of the vending machine program.
Alibaba plans the first two automated test drive centers in Nanjing and Shanghai, with dozens more planned across the country. Ford isn't the only OEM interested in the trial, with Audi, BMW, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo also queuing up to be included. Check out the video above to see how it works.