LED There be Light
In the world of car design, lights rule. Because, much like spectacles on a human being, they’re there to fulfil a purpose. But they also make an extremely strong design statement. Adam Hatton, creative director, exterior design at Jaguar, says lights are ‘the jewellery of the vehicle – they influence the first impressions of a customer’.
Lights are also pivotal when it comes to creating brand identity. According to Lindsay Pieterse, manager, planning, steering and lifestyle communications at BMW South Africa, lighting design makes a key contribution to the unmistakable look of every BMW. ‘Traditionally, a four-eyes face and typical kidney grille characterise every BMW, making it immediately identifiable … even without seeing the brand insignia,’ she explains.
David Hughes, managing director, Mazda Southern Africa, agrees: ‘Lights are very important – they are a big feature when it comes to the overall final look and character of the vehicle. On the Mazda2, for example, positioning the headlamps and radiator grille as low as possible with a forward-inclined posture creates a bold expression that is both handsome and full of vitality.’
Heinz Redlich, a designer at the Porsche Design Studio at the Weissach Research and Development Centre in Germany, paints a similar picture. ‘Light is identity, by day as well as by night. It has attributes that also apply to Porsche sports cars: purist, unmistakable, striking. And it too follows the principle that a Porsche should be recognisable as a Porsche from afar,’ he notes.
Stefan Sielaff (now at Volkswagen), the man who designed Audi’s distinctive light-emitting diode (LED) exterior lights, concurs. ‘Audi’s daytime running lights cemented the visible persona of the brand,’ he points out.
Designers are now able to play with a palette of new lighting technologies, for automotive lights have certainly come a very long way.
The automotive headlight’s tale begins in the late 1880s with acetylene lamps – these proved relatively popular because the flame was resistant to wind and rain. They were replaced by electric lamps in 1898. The first electric headlight was produced by the Electric Vehicle Company in Hartford, Connecticut, but it was far from faultless: the lamps didn’t last long and were very expensive.
In 1912 Cadillac upped the lighting ante with the creation of a modern vehicle-electrical system, and by 1915 Ford was equipping the Model T with electric lights.
The next major development came in the 1940s with the advent of the sealed-beam headlight. General Electric patented halogen bulbs 10 years later and they reigned supreme for many decades.
In fact, the evolution of automotive lighting ground to a halt until the early 1990s, when high-intensity discharge (HID) or xenon headlights became available (the first xenon headlight appeared on the BMW 7 Series in 1991). They were praised for being more effective than halogen lights (a xenon bulb produces 3 000 lumens and 90 millicandela a square metre, as opposed to halogen lights, which generate 1 400 lumens and 30 millicandela a square metre).
‘Lights are the jewellery of the vehicle – they influence the first impressions of a customer’ – Adam Hatton, creative director, exterior design, Jaguar
They also last longer: 2 000 hours versus 1 000 hours for halogen. But they take a while to reach full brightness.
The next really big thing was the debut of LED technology in headlights at the beginning of this century. In 2006 the Audi R8 and Lexus LS became the first production cars to use LED headlights. LEDs are, of course, not new – we first saw them in the red numeric displays of pocket calculators in the 1970s. We might not know they are there, but LEDs are all around us.
These light-emitting diodes – just a square millimetre in size – convert electrical energy directly into light with very high efficiency. As such, they are used for background lighting in cellphone displays, television sets and computer screens, for instance. LEDs are also omnipresent in modern cars, where between 200 and 600 of these devices are used for everything from tail-lights and turn signals to the innumerable small signal lamps in a car’s interior and in the dashboard displays.
But it is within the field of headlight technology that the LED has really made its mark, and captains of the automotive industry appear to be passionate about its potential.
Stephan Berlitz, head, development, lighting functions and innovations at Audi, maintains that by 2018 LED technology should be about eight times more efficient than halogen light. In addition, LEDs excel thanks to their practically indefinite service life, and react up to 10 times more quickly than traditional incandescent bulbs.
‘Light-emitting diodes are similar to computer chips. Every two years there’s an increase in output of about 30 per cent,’ explains Berlitz, ‘and we’ll soon be able to create so much light with LEDs that entirely new applications will become possible.’
Sielaff concurs. ‘LEDs unlock the door to unrealised design possibilities for exterior design and interiors alike,’ he maintains.
Ford is another company that is besotted with LEDs (the new Ford Fusion Titanium is the first Ford vehicle in South Africa to use full-LED headlights). Its designers point out that, thanks to LEDs, designers now have much more flexibility when sculpting a car’s headlights than they ever did with traditional car light bulbs, including modern xenon lamps.
Family saloons always used to look staid, but the new Ford Fusion, which goes on sale early next year, has been described abroad as ‘easily one of the hottest-looking cars’ in its class. And it’s in no small part thanks to its headlights.
‘For the new Fusion we really wanted to exaggerate the slimness of the headlights, and LED technology allowed us to do that,’ says Chris Hamilton, chief designer at Ford. ‘That wouldn’t have been possible with a traditional halogen reflector.’
LEDs can create lighting units that are not just functional, but also radically improve the car’s exterior. Slim headlights can help to break up the corners of a vehicle and make it more streamlined. They even make it look lower, giving the impression of a sportier profile. ‘Slim headlamps can make a vehicle’s exterior appear more determined and aggressive,’ says Paul Wraith, design manager at Ford. ‘They help give the appropriate sense of presence and purpose.’
Because of their small diameter, the diodes can be arranged in patterns and controlled individually to create special lighting effects for added wow factor, such as a series of orange indicator lights that flash in sequence, and since they produce considerably less heat than old-fashioned lamps, plastic internal lenses and components which are more easily moulded to the designers’ wishes can be used.
‘Headlamps are a little bit like icebergs – the bit that you see at the front is just a small portion of the whole unit,’ says Hamilton. ‘LED units take up much less package space, so designers have more freedom to develop a theme.’
Mercedes-Benz has also embraced LED technology, but it has gone one step further with the introduction of multi-beam LED headlights on its new-generation CLS-Class.
These unique headlamps, which are exceptionally bright, automatically illuminate the road surface with an unsurpassed, precision-controlled distribution of light – without blinding others. Using a camera positioned behind the front windscreen, the car detects oncoming traffic or vehicles in front and mechanically masks them out in the light cone of the main beam so that the drivers are not dazzled.
In practice, this means that main-beam headlights can be left on at all times without irritating or even endangering other road users.
The CLS is the first road car in the world with dynamic LED high-performance headlights.
‘We developed our LED headlights so that they could immediately offer all the benefits that our customers enjoyed with the previous xenon technology,’ explains Uwe Kostanzer, head, light-system development at Mercedes-Benz. He believes that LED headlights will get even better. ‘Currently they contain 353 individual parts, which means they are considerably more complex than their xenon counterparts,’ he explains. ‘They have to become more efficient and less complex, and that’s why our goal is to simplify the system and increase its degree of integration.’
The rapid evolution of automotive lighting isn’t without its challenges. ‘We have to think far ahead with our designs,’ says Kostanzer. ‘That’s because the LEDs we are now installing in cars probably won’t exist anymore five years from now. Despite that, we will have to continue to provide spare parts for today’s vehicles. That’s a completely different situation, compared with today’s incandescent (halogen) lamp, which we have used for more than 40 years.’
Porsche’s Redlich agrees that we will continue to see rapid development within the field of lighting. ‘Since the introduction of daytime running lights, light has represented a new and fascinating challenge,’ he says. ‘Challenges like these bring out the best in designers because LEDs at Porsche have to be more than just a string of lights. That’s not for us, because it’ll soon be obsolete.’
But while designers are enthusing about and scratching their heads over the subject of LED technology, another form of lighting technology is also rearing its bulb. Laser…
BMW laser lights made their world premiere in June last year. This highly efficient light source will be arriving on our roads in a production car for the first time, in the BMW i8. (Laser lights will only be made available locally for production on the i8 from November 2015, so will be on dealer floors from January 2016.) The good news is that these laser lights are 1 000 times better than LED headlights: they can illuminate for twice the distance and they are small enough to allow more styling/packaging flexibility. And, rather importantly, these lasers won’t blind you. The bad news is that they are expensive – expect to cough up R110 000 or so for the lights alone.
What else can we expect from the future of car lights? The final word goes to Audi’s Berlitz: ‘Time is a tricky concept. It was 11 years ago that we put the first LED daytime running lights into production. Now we are talking about lasers. No one thought 11 years ago that lasers would work at all, so it’s hard to say what’s going to happen in another 10 years’ time. I suspect something will come along that is at present not even on our radar.
‘But what we can fundamentally state is where we want to go – we want to be able to control the distribution of light even more precisely, creating a kind of in-car projector, beaming the distributed light onto the road.’
One thing is certain: automotive lighting will evolve at a rate of knots and grow in value – global automotive lighting market revenue is estimated to reach R279 billion by 2018. And it’s bound to be massively exciting.
Text: Charleen Clarke