The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

Automotive lighting technology on the bleeding edge of good taste

by David Surace


This morning I had a very strong urge to pick up my neon pink highlighter and rub it all over my screen. I’m actually not much smarter than that. Anyway, this is the quote which nearly voided my monitor’s warranty, from an (subscription req’d) about Dutch technology firm Philips opening their first automotive lighting engineering center in China:

“The Shanghai center will also help Philips learn about the special needs of the China market, says Harry Linssen, regional market manager and manager of the Shanghai application center.

For example, Chinese drivers use their bright lights almost all the time, putting more strain on the lights, he says. There is also an education element to the center, such as explaining why driving with brights all the time is not necessary and can be dangerous, says Linssen.”

I can just see the greatest Dutch minds in automotive lighting now, sitting around their morning kaffe with their brows collectively furrowed, pondering how to make their high-beams brighter and more durable for market demand while simultaneously encouraging people to quit using them.

Fortunately for you and me and those guys, not all the new developments in lighting technology pose such Zen-like quandaries.

Because I’m a romantic, I envision a future with automotive lighting embracing the entire spectrum from glaringly efficient to subliminally subtle, and everywhere in between. The horsepower wars are soon to be over; there have to be other ways to get consumers’ emotional attention. Cars will need to express such exquisite lighting nuance as to make Rembrandt weep in his grave.

And part of that is the case already. There’s another from a few days back which talks about the state of interior lighting tech in the industry right now, and a few of the clever production features that auto suppliers are cooking up for the near future. Like what, you say?

Like, how about the complete replacement of incandescent and gas-discharge bulbs with light emitting diodes, or LEDs? They weren’t good for much even as recently as 20 years ago, but they get brighter and better with each passing generation. Today, right now, they’re smaller, they’re cheaper, they’re almost infinitely adjustable in terms of brightness and color, they last at the very least a couple hundred times longer, and they use an order of magnitude less voltage than their conventional brethren. In fact because of all of these things, designers can package LEDs in places we’re not used to seeing lights, like behind doorhandles and under seats and even inside soft materials.

LEDs are already being used as taillamps by many manufacturers, and daytime-running-lights by Audi and Porsche, and these are soon to spread across the GM lineup as well. The real trick, which is just now being put in production in the Audi R8, is to make real headlamps out of LEDs. They’re not so bright by themselves (yet) but when they’re grouped together in arrays their effect is magnified. And since they’re so small and take up so little voltage, they open up a new door for designers and engineers who might see a better use for the space and voltage that halogen and xenon headlights had taken up before.

And that’s just the light source. There are new ways to transport and bend that light and put it in even crazier places, like in the interior roof lining. From the : “Rolls-Royce provides its customers with the starlight headlining in its Phantom sedan and coupe. One man hand-makes the headliner at BMW’s Dingolfing plant with 1,600 individual fiber optic leads in a random star-like pattern across the roof. Customers can have their own star sign, and one Japanese client got his company logo.”

Fiber optics are just the tip of the iceberg; there is an entirely new class of light-tubes and light-guides that can spread light evenly across an entire dashboard or an entire headlamp or taillamp assembly, a technology already in use with Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and SAAB. Most current light-tubes are made of hard clear plastic or polycarbonate, with an LED at one or both ends. But 3M Automotive, a relative newcomer to the automotive lighting business, is also plying designers with a new flexible light-tube, the likes of which could fit in all kinds of unexpected places, like perhaps as the “piping” on seats and soft surfaces.

And that leaves the most interesting, and perhaps bizarre, lighting technology yet to be mined: electroluminescent (or “EL”) materials, the kind that Timex patented as Indiglo(tm) for its watches, which give off light across the entire surface once a small electrical charge is introduced. It can be cut into many different shapes, in flexible or rigid sheets and even thin strips and rods.

These have found all sorts of uses in the gauge clusters of most new cars already on the road. Chrysler also utilizes EL material inside its cupholders on many passenger vehicles including the Dodge Caliber and the Sebring/Avenger twins, and Jaguar puts the EL material to good use behind the sleek console buttons on the new XF. But what about on the outside of the car, like the glowing accent strips on the 2007 Buick Riviera Concept? Well, there are a couple problems.

Endurance racing series like the American Le Mans Series, and the Le Mans Endurance Series in Europe, have already latched onto EL number panels which make the numerals easier for officials and spectators to read during night racing. The only problems that have been encountered thus far relate to an inherent weakness in the face of impacts and water seepage, issues which can cause the EL material to short circuit in short order. EL material also becomes exponentially harder (and more expensive) to illuminate in larger sheets and strips, as it requires more voltage per additional square inch. So until steps have been taken to ensure EL panels can stand up to long-term wear and tear, inside your car they will stay.

If by now you are picturing automobiles of the future just blinking and glowing furiously at the night sky like little rolling homages to the Vegas strip, you might well be right. We have the technology to go that direction, yes. We could use our newfound lighting prowess to blind each other silly, just like the problem Philips faces in China.

But an important thing to remember is that many of these lighting instruments are used by designers in a secondary, indirect role. Good design–not just responsible design–uses light as an indicator, a way to illuminate things that are necessary. When they get it right, it’s a soothing, calming and altogether safer way to drive.

But if your necessary things just happen to be blinding or gaudy, that’s your problem. And that’s– wait a minute, who stole my pink highlighter?

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Techshake's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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1 Comment

  1. The Air Force and navy have been using EL lighting in aircraft cockpits for years now. It’s the perfect technology for backlighting instrument panels.

    And don’t forget the the Ford Mustang has LED instrument lighting with user selectable color schemes as an option/upgrade.

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