New Headlight Technology - Lasers and LEDs!

The Feds don’t know what to make of Audi’s new LED headlamps!

Audi has built a better automotive lighting system, known as the matrix beam LED headlamps. Matrix LEDs promise better, more precise lighting for the driver, less blinding light to dazzle oncoming motorists, and a kind of mid-beams for roads with only a little traffic. The Matrix lighting technology is ready to go on the 2013 Audi A8 big luxury sedan, but don’t hold your breath if you live in the US — when Audi asked the National Highway Transportation Administration for a ruling, the NHTSA demurred, unsure how to fit the square peg of a variable-output, matrix headlamp array into the round hole they call low and high beams. The issue is that in America we’ve never seen a “Mid” beam before, only high and low.

Audi Matrix LED Headlights with “Mid-Beam”.

Audi’s matrix lighting, first shown on the Audi A2 concept car (above) at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show, comprises multiple segments that can be turned on or off as conditions warrant. Some elements could be steerable to help drivers go around corners. Combine it with next-generation GPS and the steerable lamp could swivel before you even begin to turn the wheel. Not to mention these headlights may be paired with a photo light sensor that will automatically dim the headlights when approaching other cars on the road at night.

Matrix beams are just a start — the NHTSA needs to prepare itself for more new tech. Audi competitors BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Opel are working hard also on the field called “smart lighting systems”. BMW is even developing laser headlamps. No, not superheated beams like in the movies designed to obliterate other annoying drivers on the road ahead of you…, but white lighting that can be precisely modulated and, unlike death rays, hardly uses any energy.

LED headlamps are only just trickling onto the market — mostly on high-end cars — but now it seems a certain German automaker has plans for laser headlamps. “Laser light is the next logical step in car light development … for series production within a few years in the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid,” says BMW. Lasers have the potential to be simultaneously more powerful, more efficient, and smaller than other headlamp types. Before you get too excited, though: the output of laser headlights will be modulated for safety so you can’t, for better or worse, come up close and bubble the paint of the car in front that won’t get out of the left-hand lane on the interstate.

Prototype Laser Headlights from BMW

The benefits of a laser headlamp are compelling: a near parallel beam of light (i.e. no glare) 1,000 times more intense than conventional LEDs but with less than half the energy consumption; 170 lumens of output per watt for laser headlamps, compared to 100 lumens per watt for LEDs. Both are phenomenally efficient compared to a standard household light bulb.

The history of headlamps of the past generation has gone from one extreme to another, from the yellowish tungsten glow of incandescent halogen headlamps, to the semi-updated quartz headlamps (longer-lived, brighter) and then to xenon or high-intensity discharge headlamps. Now all of a sudden we are moving into new technology faster than ever, first with full LED lighting, and an immediate quantum leap into lasers! Normally automakers develop and release these types of products in Europe first and the states later on down the road, so don’t hold your breath to see these headlights driving down the streets of Minneapolis, MN anytime soon.

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