Each year, the world's motor vehicle lighting industry produces and distributes billions of dollars' worth of lighting equipment, light sources, sub-assemblies and components to the world's vehicle makers and a diverse aftermarket. Here, we provide an overview of developments in a dynamic and fast-moving sector.

By 2011, the market scale for vehicular lighting is expected to reach US$10.6bn. Similar trends, of course, can be seen in the industry supplying any other category of automotive components. However, the lighting sector stands apart in its high level of cooperation among major and minor participants and its advanced degree of global integration.

While recent joint ventures and technology-sharing agreements have increased this effect, it remains due in large part to the industry's bustling programme of collaboration with key technical universities and research institutes and the symposia, congresses and conferences at which the latest research, concepts, technical solutions and products debut and are displayed, demonstrated and discussed in great detail within a friendly, collaboration-orientated community of researchers, marketers, regulators, scientists and principal consumers.

Much of this activity is centred in Europe where, in 'odd-year' autumns, ISAL - the International Symposium on Automotive Lighting - is held in Germany and in 'even-year' autumns the V.I.S.I.O.N. congress and technology expo is held in France. This present report incorporates up-to-the-minute reportage from ISAL 2009 and V.I.S.I.O.N. 2008, with interview material from the world's top experts in automotive lighting.

North American institutional participation also augments the advancement of the state of the automotive lighting art: UMTRI - the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute - and the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are prominent sources of new data and knowledge. The US National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board maintains a Visibility Committee with annual conferences and symposia where automotive lighting research is discussed and planned. And Transport Canada's chief lighting regulator, Marcin Gorzkowski, presides over GRE, the cooperative international group that decides global ECE automotive lighting regulations.

Automotive lighting technology is evolving at an unprecedented and accelerating pace. As the techniques by which light is produced, displayed and distributed grow more sophisticated, so must the store of knowledge and the specificity of regulations. This is true not only across various technologies, but also among them; automotive lighting is rapidly moving away from the traditionally passive nature of its function and towards computer-controlled active smart operation. Sophisticated dynamic driver-assistance technologies and vehicle lighting systems are increasingly being deeply and broadly integrated into comprehensive driver vision systems.

The openly communicative nature of this industry exerts significant influence on the nature of propriety and competition among its participants. Most every generalist maker in the field offers most every technology; the differences are primarily in the implementation at the level of technique. All the major and several of the smaller makers, for example, are actively and rapidly advancing the state of the art and market presence of LED headlamps and variable-beam adaptive headlighting systems, and all makers can supply any particular sort of device, such as headlamp projector modules, incorporating any particular light source and producing any specific list of functions. Valeo is just as proud of its BeaMatic and MicroOptics as Hella is of its VarioX and Light Curtain, for example; both techniques are used to create variable headlight beam distributions and radically designed, high-performance LED tail lamps, respectively, though the two makers' techniques and their visual results are quite different.

This is not to elide the various participants' specialities, nor their respective innovations and advances in technique and practice. Valeo has new high-efficiency optics for halogen headlamps and a new TriXenon projector, Hella and Stanley are doing advanced work on full-time high beams with infinitely variable, pixelated selective shadow masking, Koito is producing ultra-compact projectors, AL has devised a new high-performance BiHalogen projector based around a new third-generation 9012 bulb from Philips, ZKW has devised an adaptive headlight projector that swings only the front lens rather than pivoting the entire optic, and so forth.

Beyond these sorts of innovations, the various individual companies' products have long been differentiated less by fundamental technology than by unique techniques and their underlying engineering and design philosophy. They compete not only on cost and quality, but also on design and style. Vehicles' lights are highly conspicuous both during the daytime and after dark. As technology advances to facilitate radical departures from traditional design, this visibility is increasingly being harnessed to provide and promote vehicle brand identity and to advertise the lights' level of technology - and, by progressive extension, that of the car as a whole, and that of its maker.

But it is not just the newest technologies such as LEDs that are being employed alone or in combination to provide this technical advertising. New implementations of legacy technologies such as filament bulbs and reflectors are being devised to provide increased efficiency, performance, and aesthetics where the use of newer technologies is not cost-effective. From this standpoint, a semi-closed marketing and influence loop is effected by vehicle makers' increasing use of lighting technology to differentiate basic- from high-specification variants of a given model.

Even in lighting-conscious markets such as Europe and Asia, it has been found to be slow and difficult to stimulate sales of relatively costly high-technology lighting by means of education about the safety and performance benefits of such lighting. As a result, market prevalence of better-than-basic lights has tended to fall substantially short of initial predictions - viz HID Xenon headlamps, which still have not neared the market penetration rate reasonably predicted at their introduction. Vehicle makers and lighting suppliers are beginning to use design and style levers to work around this roadblock, and in the relatively long run LEDs will shift the technological landscape dramatically.

At the same time, the industry is taking lessons from its long-frustrated efforts at getting superior HID Xenon headlamps to be demanded at such a level that they become taken for granted as standard equipment; it is likely the ramp-up of the present significant shift in fundamental technology, to LED headlamps, will follow a very different path from the last one, from halogen to HID Xenon lights. This is not to say that LED headlamps' market penetration is a foregone conclusion; there remain stiff technical and economic challenges before such lamps shift from remarkable novelty to commodity item. However, the convergence of LEDs' evolving performance and their growing amenability to increasingly pressing demands for reduced power consumption means that LED headlamps will have a relatively easy go in achieving market acceptance.

The profile of the automotive lighting industry has lately been undergoing rapid and significant change, under the combined influences of multiple forces. Lighting regulations, once many in number and significantly different in technical prescriptions in the world's many markets, are now greatly reduced in number and substantially harmonised in content. Aspects of lighting performance long left unregulated, such as pedestrian compatibility in crashes, are now being fast-tracked for regulation that will significantly affect the way lamps are designed and built. Markets have consolidated, as have vehicle makers and lighting suppliers, giving rise to regionally- rather than nationally-based players round the world. Lighting technology has advanced at a blistering pace since the beginning of the 21st century, presenting an array of engineering and design options of unprecedented width. At the same time, vehicle stylists and buyers have grown considerably more daring and demanding, so the wide range of options, considered until recently a mere luxury, is now a necessity.

The emergence and stratospheric growth of both the supply and the demand for vehicles and their lighting components in developing nations has significantly pushed and pulled at the world's automotive lighting makers. As a result, international and intercompany cooperation is at an all-time high in the industry.

The globalisation of the auto industry, with concomitant cost pressures, could reasonably have been expected to create new competition among auto lighting firms which historically were largely kept separate by disjoint markets, and that has certainly occurred. However, the opposite effect is also quite prominent: companies that not long ago competed against one another are now collaborating, as are companies formerly in simple vendor/buyer relationships. Technique, practice, subcomponents and even customers and build facilities are being shared at an unprecedented level.

This is occurring not only in the first world (as for example with ValeoSylvania in the US, Hella-Stanley in Australia and the Ichikoh-Valeo alliance in Europe), but also to a significant degree in developing countries (for example, the Neolite-ZKWe joint venture in India). Partnerships, joint ventures and other collaborative arrangements serve to accelerate the presence and prevalence of better lighting on the roads of developing countries. In a broader context, cooperative arrangements are elevating and promulgating the industry's best practices and reducing the cost of every given level of automotive lighting sophistication through economies of scale.

See also: Global market review of automotive lighting - forecasts to 2015 (download)