What does the future look like? It's a perennial question, one that for cars feels more pertinent than ever. What you're looking at here is the Aicon, and it's what the future looks like according to Audi.

You'll know that cars are becoming battery powered (or electrifying - as the industry likes to call it). You might have also used a shared mobility service like Zipcar. And you'll probably also have heard a lot of fuss being made about driverless, or autonomous cars.

Put those three things together and you've got a massive change for the car industry. One that's coming sooner than you may think: at the Audi Brand Summit 2018 in Shenzhen, China, the German maker confirmed that the Aicon will be on the road by 2021. And it'll deliver 700-800km of range per charge.

Here's a closer look at the Aicon's impressive proposition.

Audi Aicon: Exterior designed for Level 5 autonomy

At over five metres long, the Aicon is actually the same size as today's Audi A8L. It's massive for a reason: because you'll want as much space as possible inside this steering wheel-free autonomous car.

Pocket-lintAudi Aicon concept in pictures image 5

The 26-inch wheels are pure concept car, though, but the front and rear lights – which Audi calls swarm lighting – are something the company has been developing for a while and wants to get into production. We saw it as long ago as 2013, at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show, as it then stood for).

The front and rear ends of the Aicon will be completely dominated by lighting could become a reality – especially as cars that drives themselves will need to do more than just light the way and indicate, they'll need to communicate with pedestrians too. Audi's lights, which is like a digital display board, can configure to pull faces and convey different messages.

The closed wheels are designed so that the car is more aerodynamic. Because it's electric, and the car can drive itself, the need for massive brake discs is reduced, so Audi has mounted these further inboard and reckons they won't get as hot, so the wheel doesn't need to be open to allow air to cool the brakes.

Pocket-lintAudi Aicon concept in pictures image 2

Despite all those nips and tucks away from convention, the Aicon still looks quite car like. No, it's not the prettiest Audi ever, but it's not a box on wheels either. Indeed, the overall exterior design reminds us in some ways of the Mercedes F015 concept, which also previewed an autonomous, electric future.

Audi Aicon: A glimpse at the interface of the future

Still, it's inside where you really need to be, because there is no steering wheel and no pedals. With the promise of it being on some Chinese city streets by 2021, we suspect a tap of an app could see this car roll up to collect you to your onward destination.

That's because Audi is imagining the Aicon as a car you'll never need to drive yourself, which has allowed the German maker to fit a pair of lounge chairs up front, while the passenger side is designed to shuttle back and recline into a position that's far more horizontal than you'd ever expect to be in a car (if not quite a full 180-degree lie-flat seat, as per an international flight). Once reclined we felt a bit like we were at the dentist... which we're sure isn't what Audi intended.

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The seat also slides back miles from the dashboard, so we were wondering how we might change the music, tell the car where to go, or just do the things you might generally interface with a car for. Well, Audi has come up with a number of clever ways to allow this.

Firstly, and most simply, the interface wraps right around the car, so those black panels in the upper door are actually screens. The interface menu will follow you as the seat moves around the car – so it's never out of reach.

But it can't do everything, so to help more Audi has thrown in some artificial intelligence (hence the "AI" at the start of the Aicon's name, see what they did there?). There's a personal assistant, called PIA, as represented by the triangle icon, with whom you can talk. PIA seems pretty good at picking up your requests and commands, we had a great chat (although she's a bit too heavily on-brand), but there's another three years for this to be further enhanced.

But the coolest part of the interface is the gaze selection. By simply looking at one of the menu tiles on the main dashboard for a couple of seconds it is selected. a double tap of the wooden section on the door is used to enter that menu. To our amazement, it worked. And – if you haven't experienced gaze selection before – it feels like magic, as if thinking actions into life.

Pocket-lintAudi Aicon concept in pictures image 3

After all that, the giant head-up display feels like a small detail, but in truth it's pretty cool. It's possible to turn the front seats inwards and outwards by 15-degrees too.

Back seat passengers get a bit of a raw deal on a 2+2 bench, though. But if the front passenger seat is fully reclined you'll not want to be sat behind it anyway. We felt that seemed a bit crazy in a car that's over five metres long. 

Here sooner than you think?

When we first saw the Aicon as a concept at the Frankfurt Auto Show, we weren't sure we'd ever see it on the road. The Brand Summit turned that idea on its head, which is a rather exciting thought to be seeing the first "Level 5" autonomous car.

Pocket-lintAudi Aicon concept in pictures image 3

But while we're excited about autonomous driving, some experts don't totally buy it. And the car's design perhaps doesn't paint a vision that's massively representative of the way people live right now. In a way, though, that's part of the fun: to feel as though we're looking at something truly futuristic and exciting; a car that may take longer to be on the road outside of China.

That aside, one of the Aicon's most impressive facets is its interface. The fact that it worked so faultlessly for us in a one-off built concept, years before coming to reality, shows that Audi is truly on its A-game.