Most of the recent advances in headlight technology — halogen and high-intensity discharge (HID) technology, most notably — have originated in Europe, where drivers and industry types traditionally have a high regard for performance and improving the driving experience.
But engineers at Osram Sylvania's Automotive Lighting unit in Hillsboro, NH, say the next revolution in forward lighting, light-emitting diode (LED) headlamps, almost certainly will be adopted more quickly in the U.S. than in Europe.
That's due to a drastically different regulatory process to which each region conforms, says Michael Tucker, engineering manager-applications for Osram Sylvania.
Tucker says it takes three to five years to usher a new automotive light-source technology through the maze of European Union regulations. By comparison, running the same gamut for “regulatory release” approval for a new light source in the U.S. takes a mere 30-90 days.
“We see more potential (LED headlamp) applications right now for the U.S. rather than Europe,” Tucker says, adding that the first production car to use LED headlights may be in the U.S. by 2007.
That is not to say Europe is not enthusiastic about the potential of LEDs, Tucker says. The Audi A8, for instance, last year adopted LED daytime running lights, and other European auto makers are well under way with LED headlamp programs.
Despite the U.S.'s probable lead in adopting LED forward lighting, Tucker predicts increasing focus on performance, styling and safety advances will accelerate worldwide rollout of LED headlamps.
Tucker suggests market share for LED headlamps will surpass HID technology as quickly as 10 years from now. “We haven't solved all the technical problems yet,” Jim Johnson, Osram Sylvania executive vice president and general manager-Global Automotive Lighting, says of LED lighting. “And we need to get cost in line.”
But the safety, performance and styling potential for LED headlights means engineers are working diligently to solve the current technical and cost obstacles. Johnson says LEDs enable a host of capabilities that enhance safety and driver appeal.
A key advantage: Adoption of LED headlamps will enable several innovative “smart” headlight features. Chief among them is “adaptive” headlights that not only can better illuminate corners, but also easily and quickly vary their intensity.
Several current vehicles already have adaptive front-lighting systems that swivel the headlamp assembly in concert with a turn of the steering wheel. But Johnson says LED systems will enable the function without the complex, motor-driven moving parts now necessary. Some LEDs in the headlight array simply will illuminate or darken in accordance with the need to shine outside the normal beam pattern.
Another possible function, variable intensity, could be employed to enhance vision at dusk, when drivers' vision can be compromised by the quasi-light conditions. The capability also could provide automatic disengagement of high beams when oncoming traffic is sensed.
Tucker says Osram Sylvania engineers in the U.S. and Germany are working on LED forward-lighting systems as the foundation component in a focus on headlights as a differentiating safety and styling feature.
In addition to LED adaptive lighting, the company is developing advanced infrared night-vision lighting, various types of fog/auxiliary lighting and LED-based signal and taillights, which already are widespread in the industry.
Although the safety potential is clear, Osram Sylvania says it still is working to elevate LED performance to the level of current conventional headlights. State-of-the-art LEDs can pump out about 30 lumens per watt — just a third of the 90 lumens/watt available from HID lighting.
“We have to get to the HID range (of light output),” says Tucker. Meanwhile, he says, nobody will see LED headlamps on much of anything until the cost can be reduced to about twice the cost of a current “premium” HID headlamp system.
Thus, do not expect to see the first LED headlamps on anything but an expensive luxury or sport/performance vehicle, says Tucker.
Even then, he says, the technology might not be standard equipment — despite the fact that LED forward lighting, according to one Osram lighting engineer, “appears to be the holy grail of the lighting market right now.”