Automotive lighting is undergoing a quiet revolution, leading to new vehicle designs and providing enhanced nighttime safety. But while many of the innovations have become common in Europe and Asia, they have been slower to arrive in the United States.
The changes are made possible primarily through the increased use of LED lamps, the same technology used in the newest generation of home lighting. LED lamps are smaller, run cooler and use less energy than standard automotive lamps.
“LEDs let us package light in smaller spaces, so we can create a signature look,” said Shannen Borngesser, an exterior lighting engineer for General Motors. Headlights and taillights can now be constructed in different shapes and patterns that, much like a car’s tail fins in the 1960s, immediately identify a particular make and model.
Even to the untrained eye, there is no mistaking the front of an Audi with its sharply angled LED daytime lights, the four circles of a BMW’s headlight system or the vertical red strip of a Cadillac Escalade’s rear lights and white blades of its headlights.
Behind the scenes, and mostly in other countries, manufacturers are developing new ways to use light to make nighttime driving safer. By combining LED lamps with cameras, a vehicle’s headlights can be more than just a set of low and high beams, and instead continuously alter their light patterns to exactly fit the immediate road conditions.
And while LED lamps have migrated to a vehicle’s rear, creating bright sheets of brake lights, turn signals and taillights that illuminate almost instantaneously, car manufacturers and designers are entranced by the possibilities of OLED, or organic light emitting diode, technology.
OLED light can be manufactured in thin sheets, giving designers the ability to place light wherever on the car’s body they desire. And because OLED light sources take up so little room, vehicle space could be freed up for other uses or to create other shapes. Still, the use of OLED light sources is years off, because the technology is stymied by current low light output and high cost.