Automotive News Europe reports that suppliers are predicting a breakthrough of LED front-lighting technology. They expect that series production will start in the US market in 2006, followed by Europe in 2008. But nobody is certain if light-emitting diode technology can lower costs enough to capture the mass market, or when.

The expected advantages of LEDs are more styling flexibility, xenon-like high performance at lower cost, and vehicle-lifetime durability. But the technology is still at an early stage.

If successful, LED technology could lead to a shake-up of the traditional hierarchy of lighting suppliers. There are different scenarios for the development of LED front lighting, which would lead to drastically different outcomes. The challenges for LEDs are clear: They must become more powerful, less costly, and handle heat better.

“LEDs have to get cheaper by a factor of 2 or 2.5,” said Michael Hamm, director for lighting technology and innovation at Automotive Lighting in Reutlingen, Germany.

Said Rainer Neumann, head of lighting development Europe at Visteon in Kerpen, Germany: “We have to reach the price level of xenon. We are not there yet, but the curve is falling exponentially.”

Currently, LED lighting units are more expensive than xenon and far more expensive than halogen lighting. But in the long run, LEDs will be cheaper than xenon, Neumann predicts.

And assuming LED light output rises as sharply as expected, about half the number of LED units will be needed per function, suppliers say. But suppliers say while LEDs will likely become cheaper than xenon lights, they will never reach the level of halogen lights, which are uniformly expected to remain the standard lighting source.

LEDs have undisputed advantages in adaptability, packaging and durability.

Added functionalities are a strong point, said Konrad Weigl, head of sales and business development at Valeo Lighting Systems.

“Adaptive lighting functions such as cornering lights are easier to execute with LEDs,” he said.

Long-terms costs are better, said Hella Lighting North America President Raymund Heinen. “The increased durability of LEDs may lead to automotive headlamp systems without the need for replacement,” he said.

Automakers could save on design and complexity costs if they didn’t need to design access to lamps for replacement. LEDs also make it easier to meet pedestrian-protection rules. They can be placed anywhere on the front of a vehicle, and need only half the space of halogen or xenon lighting units.

LED technology gives the industry an alternative to the “clear-glass” look once reserved for premium cars but now commonplace. Designers rave about the possibilities.

“It is kind of a liberation,” said Marc Florian, senior designer at GM’s advanced design studio and instructor at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit. “The design possibilities are far greater than with halogen or xenon lights. And this will make it easier to enhance a specific brand look,” said Florian. “We will move away from the round lighting units and do some real styling,” he added.

Florian said that current LED concepts only hint at the possibilities. “LEDs have to be liberated from the Christmas-tree look. We will see anything from smooth, simple graphics to complex, high-tech, mechanically oriented lighting units,” he said.

Automotive News Europe