Eric Taub writes an important article in the New York Times about LED lighting innovations for vehicles that are common in Europe and Asia but are having a harder time being deployed in the US.
With LED Lights, Automakers Reveal All the Road We Cannot See
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.
An early version of this system has been offered by Opel, G.M.’s European division, in several models for 12 years. Its current version, AFL Plus (for “adaptive forward lighting plus”) determines the condition of the road and, using a rotating drum inside a xenon headlamp, creates nine variations of the beam pattern.
But it’s the increased use of LED lamps that is allowing manufacturers to fine-tune this technology. Given an LED’s smaller size, cars can pack more bulbs into each headlight, each of which can then be turned on and off to create unique light patterns based on road conditions and the amount of oncoming traffic. This ensures that other drivers are never blinded by oncoming headlights, while the driver of the vehicle using the system receives an optimal view of the road.
Opel’s AFL Plus system using LEDs will be introduced this summer; it will be able to create 256 beam patterns, said Ingolf Schneider, Opel’s director of lighting technology.
Audi, the luxury division of Volkswagen, has been a leader in lighting technology. Its high-performance R8 includes an optional laser high beam. And five of its sedan and sport utility vehicle models can be bought with an LED-based high-beam matrix headlight.
The system is so good at not shining light on vehicles traveling ahead of it that the high beam can remain on and adjust itself, even if eight cars are in front.
But American drivers have yet to see the benefits of the new technology. When those cars are sold in the United States, all those models are fitted with standard headlights.
Regulations in the United States specify that headlights must create a specific pattern. While they can rotate when a car turns a corner, the pattern is not allowed to change shape.
Because of restrictions like these, “lighting advances are coming from Europe and Japan,” said Stephan Berlitz, Audi’s head of lighting technology.
While Chrysler doesn’t offer vehicles with LED headlights, it is interested in creating a matrix high-beam system similar to Audi’s.
“The industry is very excited by the adaptive driving beam,” said Dennis Novack, the development lead for exterior lighting for Fiat Chrysler.
Manufacturers see other technologies eventually creating even more efficient, attractive and safe lighting. Opel is in the early stages of testing headlights that will respond to a driver’s eye movements, which are tracked by an in-vehicle camera. Algorithms and exterior cameras will ensure that a beam’s pattern and direction do not change every time drivers look at billboards or their feet. The system won’t be available for at least five years, Ms. Borngesser said.
Audi conceives of a time when headlights will be able to project patterns, like a foot path on the road to help a pedestrian cross a dark street, or lines to the left and right of a vehicle as it passes through a construction zone, allowing the driver to get a better sense of the size of the constricted road, Mr. Berlitz said.
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.
To encourage the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to change its rules regarding matrix high beams, the Society of Automotive Engineers has been working for over a year to create a set of standards that the government agency could then use as a basis for rule-making changes. Last year, Audi brought a European version of its A8 sedan to the United States to demonstrate its technology to government officials.
But approval, if it happens, will most likely take years, officials say, because changing American lighting regulations is an elaborate and slow process involving testing, public comments and rule making. Once approved, manufacturers then have to fit the changes into their production schedules.
“We’re looking at ways to amend the lighting standard to allow systems to provide even better lighting,” said Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for the agency. “It’s a frustrating and time-consuming process. We have an obligation that the U.S. government not act rashly.”