Shanghai must be the most perfect demonstration of the advantages of electric power for cars. In a city with 22 million inhabitants and three million cars, traffic is so bad that business hours have been staggered across the city to avoid gridlock. Coal-fired industry just adds to a smog problem which rivals Los Angeles in all its grimy yellow glory.

As you might expect, the more forward-thinking European and US car makers took the opportunity to show off electric and hybrid vehicles at Auto Shanghai 2011, China’s biggest motor show, which opened to the media on Tuesday. China is now Audi’s biggest market – bigger even than Germany – and alongside the new Q3 model the company displayed a hybrid version of its established Q5. Peugeot was in on the act with a China-developed hybrid and BMW revealed a hybrid saloon developed with its Chinese partner Brilliance.

It’s these joint ventures which signal the growing interest among Chinese consumers for environmentally responsible cars. China’s indigenous manufacturers were playing the same game, with hybrids on show from BYD, Lifan, Geely and SAIC – the latter displaying an entire range of new-technology vehicles, including hybrids and full electric vehicles.

Fisker’s extended-range electric car, the Karma, was also on display, marking the start of production at Valmet in Finland. The company was aiming to announce the appointment of a Chinese distributor during the show, and was bullish enough to hope for some Chinese deposits to add to the 3000 or so already taken for Henrik Fisker’s sustainable saloon.

But let’s not get carried away: hybrids are very rare in China, and the electric vehicles that are seen but not heard in China’s cities are scooters rather than cars. Sales of electrically-driven vehicles are bound to grow here, but it’s early days yet.

There was BMW’s new 6-series (which looks much the same as before) and the Concept M5, which is crisper and more convincing in the metal than the earliest official pictures led us to hope. Another concept, but with a different aim, was the ICONA Fuselage, which was there to demonstrate the design, engineering and concept build expertise of the Shanghai-based ICONA consultancy. It also introduced interesting ideas in aerodynamics and possibly the most extravagantly constructed wheels in the history of, well, the wheel – each one having 33 plexiglass spokes. Few will notice the Fuselage at Shanghai and because ICONA concentrates on the Chinese market the car may never make it to Europe. Yet for me, it was the star of the show.

Auto Shanghai is an oddity, because China is an odd market: the biggest in the world, but also one of the most insular. As a result, there were plenty of announcements by local car makers and joint ventures which will be of little consequence to the rest of the world, together with numerous ‘Asian debuts’ of cars already seen elsewhere. But there are just the first signs that China’s car market might be starting to move into line a little more with US and European markets, and that might have consequences for car makers the world over.

Andrew Noakes is senior lecturer in automotive journalism at Coventry University.