The end could be near for the electric light bulb - in the automotive industry at least.

Electronic semiconductors called light emitting diodes have been in use for rear light systems on cars since the early 1990s. Now companies in the sector say LEDs may start replacing bulbs for low-beam headlights as early as 2006, according to Automotive News Europe.

LEDs are smaller and use much less power than bulbs. They have a long life and provide pure colour. Lighting specialists such as Valeo, Hella and Visteon are investing heavily in LED technology. Valeo has a 40% market share in lighting in Europe. With its Japanese partner Ichikoh, the share is about 26% worldwide.

Jean-Paul Ravier, director of advanced development and research at Valeo Lighting Systems, says the installation rate for LEDs on rear light clusters is around 10%, but will grow rapidly. "Within five years we should have at least one function with LEDs on at least 50% of the vehicles."

LEDs light up about 250 milliseconds quicker than bulbs. That doesn't sound like much, but at 100km/h (62mph), it's about 7 metres in distance - perhaps the difference between stopping safely and crashing. "Now we have many applications of LEDs for rear lighting, especially for the tail section, which is a more useful function", Ravier said.

Stylistically, LEDs "open a brand new look in headlamps for future vehicle generations", says German lighting specialist Hella.

The integration potential is also driving LED development. LEDs are a true electronic component, rather than electronically controlled electrics.

This means that they can be integrated into the vehicle's electronic architecture, giving lighting systems a degree of intelligence for adaptive lighting systems.

Possible applications include: automatic fog lighting, which activates when the car detects foggy conditions; brake force display, which illuminates a brighter and bigger area when the brake pedal is pushed hard.

[BMW is already installing this feature on most of its model line, having just obtained European regulators' approval].