Bending light around blind corners is on the horizon, according to some major headlamp manufacturers. Some of the latest novel advances centre on computer-controlled headlight systems that adapt the beam, its intensity and direction to help drivers see the road better, using data received from a global positioning satellite system and digitised road maps.
A HID unit uses xenon gas to produce more light for less power

A halogen bulb - HID is gradually replacing halogen across all car segments

These 'smart' systems use electronics and simulation technologies to programme the headlights to react to the different actions of the driver. Examples include electronically linking the steering wheel to a headlight reflector so that a beam of light illuminates the curve in the road ahead as the steering wheel is turned. Another option would programme the beam so that it adapts to speed by moving the headlight reflector to produce a long, narrow beam at high speeds or a wider, dispersed beam at slow speeds. Modern light technology can do considerably more than legislation has allowed so far. By 2003, manufacturers expect regulations to allow swiveling low-beam headlamps in Europe (already allowed in the US but not yet used). By 2005 the legislative framework should be established in Europe and Japan for the use of intelligent headlights-and therefore for improved road safety at night.

Such high-tech wizardry typically uses high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps to light-up the road ahead. Compared to a halogen lamp, a HID unit uses xenon gas to produce more light for less power. For this reason, HID is gradually replacing halogen bulbs across all car segments, not just within the luxury sector.

The European HID market is said to be eight years ahead of the US. This is mainly due to the stringent safety standards in force in Europe and the simple fact that consumers want this technology and are willing to pay for it. European buyers of luxury cars are still willing to pay upwards of £600 for it. In 1999, 5% of BMW 3-Series cars sold in the UK featured xenon headlights, 6% of 5-Series and 25% of the 7-Series. In February 2001, BMW in the UK were offering xenon headlights on their top-of-the-range 7-Series, not as a standard feature, but as an optional feature worth £820 ($1,300). As with so many other new technologies, carmakers will continue to make good margins on such optional equipment in the European marketplace, at least for the time being.

In Europe, estimate that 7% of all cars built in Europe last year featured HID, rising to 23% by 2005 and 42% by 2010. In Japan, we predict HID headlamps to show meteoric growth, rising from 8% fitment this year, to 20% by 2005, rising to 35% by 2010. In North America, fitment rates should rise from 1% fitment last year, to 8% by 2005 and 17% fitment by 2010.

BMW in the UK are offering xenon headlights on their top-of-the-range 7-Series

HID headlamps are still expensive to replace. A halogen headlight module may typically cost around $60 for each lamp whereas a HID lamp can cost over $500. One of the reasons for the price hike is the fact that most of HID units incorporate an expensive motor and controller for the automatic leveling system. Visteon's solution is to use remote lighting systems (also known as distributive lighting systems). It means that all the expensive lighting components are located behind the bumper, away from the accessible damage spot. Despite the cost, like anti-lock brake systems and four-wheel drive systems, HID systems will gradually permeate down the car segments and be offered in many configurations.

One of the most promising developments is to use HID light sources for the entire vehicle through the use of fibre optics. The efficiency of using optical fibres to transport light from a central source on to the road has improved significantly over the last few years. Further work is required for headlamps, but the technology is already sufficient for the use of fibre optics in interior lighting. This means that applications such as the inside of map pockets-where the heat of a bulb would have meant that, previously, lighting was inappropriate-can now be illuminated. As the use of fibre-optic lighting gathers momentum, demand for light bulbs will gradually fall.

HID systems are expensive - Visteon's solution to is to use remote lighting systems

LED light sources are gradually replacing conventional incandescent bulbs, typically for Centre High Mounted Stop Lamps (CHMSLs). There are a number of benefits of LEDs over conventional bulbs. Unlike incandescent bulbs that are sensitive to shock and vibration failures, LEDs are expected to last the life of a vehicle. In addition to styling benefits, LEDs consume around 20% of the electrical power drawn by incandescent lamps and can illuminate 0.2 seconds faster than conventional incandescent lamps, improving driver response and providing extra braking distance of five metres at 75mph. Although LEDs cost more than incandescent lamps-a typical incandescent CHMSL costs around $50 compared to $180 for a LED CHMSL-LEDs last the lifetime of the vehicle compared to 1,000 hours for an incandescent lamp. For this reason, LEDs have increasingly been used in rear lighting applications. Some manufacturers predict double-digit growth rates of LED lighting through this decade.

Although it's still early days for LED headlamp applications, some manufacturers expect to see LED headlamps entering production by the end of this decade. Increasing brightness and adding blue-green and white to the existing colour pallet of red, amber and green will mean that LED can expand from rear lighting applications and illuminating some interior features into front lighting. Volvo used the 2001 North American auto show to reveal its SCC concept vehicle. The SCC uses light generated not by traditional headlamp bulbs but by fibre optics. Volvo claims that by combining advanced computer intelligence with fibre optic light system enables engineers to tailor light distribution to match varying road speeds. At low speed, the light becomes short and wide. At high speed, the light beam narrows and becomes longer.

The use of laser diodes for exterior lighting applications is also under development by some manufacturers. Costs must tumble though before this technology enters mass production.

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Global market for automotive lighting equipment: Forecasts to 2010