LEDs cast new light on auto design

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Light-emitting diodes, more commonly known as LEDs, are revolutionizing functionality and styling of automotive lighting.

The technology, once found only on luxury cars, is becoming standard on many headlamps and taillights of mainstream vehicles to set them apart from the competition. The increase in usage comes as the price of LEDs declines and automakers are finding new ways to use them.

"It's becoming ubiquitous," said Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles North America senior vice president of product design. "Everybody is slowly but surely transferring to LEDs."

And with that transition, even more radical lighting advances could be coming to U.S. highways: Headlight systems linked to radar and cameras eliminate the need to dim high beams for oncoming cars — and can even see a child on a bicycle and direct light in that direction.

LEDs illuminate the brake lights of a Ford F-150 pickup shown at the Detroit auto show earlier this month.

Most, if not all, of the new models showcased at the 2015 North American International Auto Show incorporated LED lighting — from the Ford GT and Acura NSX supercars to the 2016 Chevrolet Volt and 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

LED lights are smaller, the strips are bendable and they use less energy than traditional halogen bulbs. For example, two LEDs can be formed and fitted to project a smooth line for daytime running lights or in groups to illuminate large areas such as taillights.

Styling, according to David Hulick, marketing director of lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania, is the main reason driving the LED revolution, followed by functionality and durability.

The Dodge brand's newest rear racetrack-style lighting — a continuous signature glow across the back of the vehicle — is done by using individual LEDs blended to form one seamless ribbon of glowing red light.

About five years ago, Gilles said the company made LED lighting a priority for all of its new and redesigned vehicles. Nearly every vehicle in the automaker's lineup, from the under-$20,000 Dodge Dart to its highest-end models, has the advanced lighting.

"It's really proliferated," Gilles said. "But our designers are enjoying it. They're getting better at it. … We keep inventing on the fly."

More vehicles are using LEDs in taillights and headlights, such as this Audi Q3. High-end models are incorporating them inside, as well.

Technological advances

The Dodge brand, Gilles said, is one example of how designers continue to evolve with the technology.

The 2011 Charger, the first with the racetrack lighting, used 164 LEDs that were each visible. The all-new 2015 Dodge Charger blends the LEDs into one seamless ribbon. It was first used on the 2014 Dodge Durango.

"Chrysler does a fabulous job of making highly stylized headlights with the minimum amount of technology they need to pull it off," said Hulick, whose parent company is a leader in the global lighting market.

Many high-end mainstream and luxury models use LEDs as decorations. Audi, Acura, BMW, Cadillac and others use groups of LEDs, also known as a matrix, to create jewel-like patterns that attract as much attention off as they do on.

On the all-new 2015 Cadillac Escalade, 48 LEDs — 17 for each headlamp and seven for each lower front-end lamp — were used to enhance the desired jewel appearance and functionality.

Hulick expects more companies to offer LEDs as standard equipment, as well as upscale options on higher-end models, calling it a "good, better, best strategy."

The "good" would likely be a hybrid of lighting technologies with halogen and limited LED lighting; "better" would be additional LEDs; and "best" would be full-LED lighting with advanced features.

Regulation woes

One of the leading features on the horizon is what the industry refers to as active, or dynamic, driving beams that can increase or dim lighting under certain circumstances.

For example, dynamic high beams can make it so drivers never have to worry about turning off their high beams.

The technology, integrating a camera and radar sensors, can detect an oncoming vehicle; it then blocks, moves or turns off one or more LEDs in a headlamp so as not to blind the oncoming driver but to continue illuminating the rest of the road.

Early systems already are being used in Europe, but U.S. regulations are hindering automakers from bringing the systems to the U.S.

The rules, enacted in the late 1960s, define what a high- and low-beam pattern must be on a vehicle. Dynamic lighting systems, due to the way they function, do not fit current regulations.

"What we're seeing in Europe, a lot of times technology is way ahead of the legislative curve," said Christian Müller, IHS Automotive Europe component forecaster and analyst.

"Subsequently, legislation will change to accommodate new technologies."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested European-specification vehicles with dynamic lighting last year. Officials are reviewing data to decide whether the agency can establish appropriate requirements for the systems.

NHTSA anticipates a decision sometime this year.

The rules also hinder another technology known as light-spotting.

When the radar and camera sense a potential obstacle — such as a deer or person — heading onto the road, it increases lighting in that direction.

Tejas Desai, head of electronics for Continental Automotive, which is developing a light-spotting system, said the goal is to increase safety by improving the driver's awareness of a potential hazard.

HIDs, lasers out in the dark

Analysts and industry experts expect LEDs to be the preferred lighting technology for the foreseeable future, phasing out high-intensity discharge lamps, known as HIDs, that often admit an intense blue beam.

Once thought to be an emerging trend, HIDs are not as customizable or fashionable as LEDs.

"We believe that LED, at least for the immediate future, is the technology to look at," said Müller. He expects HIDs to be phased out in the next two to three vehicle lifecycles.

Another lighting technology, laser lights, are not expected to proliferate anytime soon in the automotive industry due to price, regulations and the technology being too powerful.

The Audi R8 LMX and BMW i8 both offer laser lighting systems in some markets that convert the beams emitted by tiny laser diodes into white light by using a fluorescent phosphor material inside the headlight. That light then is reflected out of the headlight.

The system makes the bright-white light safe to look at. The feature increases high-beam range to more than 650 yards, according to BMW.

Laser lights do not fit into current U.S. regulations for low- or high-beams, so they are not available here.

Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed


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