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Automotive Lighting

Automotive Lighting

By Jeff Youngs,
The world's first practical automobile was invented by Karl Benz in 1885. With a top speed of less than 10 miles per hour, only one major obstacle stood in its way-darkness. The "Benz Patent Motorwagen," for all of its technological achievements, didn't have headlights.Automotive lighting refers to the illumination systems of the automobile. From headlights to taillights, blinkers to side markers, dashboards to vanity lights, modern automotive lighting has come a long way from Karl Benz's solution-the gas lantern. Let's look at the different types of bulbs that can currently be found in automobiles:
  • Incandescent. Your average "turn-of-the-century" bulb (the one Thomas Edison worked on) passes electricity through a thin (tungsten) metal filament. The wire heats white-hot and emits light in a process called incandescence. The glass bulb is much brighter than a gas lantern, though the color of the light itself tends to be yellow. These bulbs are inefficient, as they generate more infrared heat (warmth) than visible light. This century-old technology creates headlight bulbs with a lifespan of approximately 25,000 miles before the filament eventually ages and breaks and the bulb goes out.
  • Incandescent Halogen (Halogen). A halogen lamp also uses a (tungsten) metal filament, but it is encased inside a much smaller quartz bulb (the heated filament is so close to the walls of the bulb, that a bulb made of glass would melt). The gas inside the bulb is halogen, a gas that actually helps extend the life of the filament and bulb through a recycling process that allows the bulb to last much longer than the tungsten counterpart. Since halogen bulbs burn hotter, they emit more light. Their visible light is also much whiter, allowing drivers to see further down the road. Under normal use, halogen bulbs will last approximately 60,000 miles of driving.
  • High-Intensity Discharge (HID). The bluish tint you see on some vehicle headlights is created by a light technology that uses no filament. High-Intensity Discharge (HID) bulbs, also commonly referred to as xenon headlights, create light by applying electricity to high-pressure gas-xenon in this case. The gas is heated white hot, giving off visible light that appears nearly bluish-white in color. The color of the light is much closer to the color of sunlight, making it comfortable for the driver. The HID bulb uses less electricity, and lasts much longer than the other types of filament bulbs. HID bulb life is approximately 200,000 miles.
  • Light-Emitting Diode (LED). The latest bulb technology to be introduced to automobiles is the Light-Emitting Diode. These tiny bulbs, a fraction of the size of the others, don't utilize a filament or gas plasma for illumination. Instead, they create light from the movement of electricity across a tiny electronic chip. As they have no filament or gas to heat for illumination, LED bulbs tend to run at very cool temperatures, and require very little electricity. These properties also allow them to be placed within plastic cases or lenses, which are much more durable than glass. Smaller, cooler, more moisture- and vibration-resistant, and much more efficient, LED bulbs are designed to last the lifetime of your vehicle-often decades.
What bulbs will I find in my vehicle?

In 1898, the first electric headlights appeared as an option on some vehicles, but their application was hardly widespread. Cadillac introduced the first electrical lighting and ignition system equipped with shock-resistant incandescent headlight bulbs in 1912. Shortly thereafter, nearly all vehicles were exclusively using incandescent bulbs, in headlights, interior lights and for dashboard illumination. Replacing bulbs was commonplace, as they burned out frequently.

Today's headlights are typically halogen bulbs, with standard or focused lenses, placed behind plastic covers (for aerodynamics and bulb protection). Upscale vehicles are often equipped with HID headlights with an auto-leveling feature to ensure that the light is directed properly for different vehicle-load conditions. Adaptive headlights, which were recently introduced, turn with the vehicle to aid illumination while cornering. Daytime running lights keep the headlights illuminated during the day for increased vehicle visibility in traffic.

Blinkers, brake lights and side-marker lights are typically lit by small incandescent bulbs. As costs fall, LED technology is quickly replacing these bulbs by offering quicker illumination that helps decrease driver reaction times as well as better reliability and longevity. Their tiny size also allows them to fit in smaller spaces, and they weigh less than the equivalent traditional bulb.

Dashboard lights and interior illumination-traditionally incandescent bulbs tinted white, green or orange-are being replaced with color-specific LEDs. As they are minimal in size, LEDs can fit unobtrusively just about anywhere. As a result, they are now illuminating switches, foot wells and door handles while casting a soft glow in automotive interiors.

The future of automotive lighting

Though HID technology seems optimal for headlight use, it is the light-emitting diode, or LED, that will be commonplace on nearly all automobiles in the future. Their low cost, small size and extreme reliability will allow them to become the "light of choice" for exterior and interior automotive lighting. As LED technology is still relatively new, advancements will soon increase light output by nearly 30 times-enough to even make LED headlights feasible. Like the gas lantern hung on the first automobile, it is just a matter of time before the traditional filament-based bulb burns out completely.
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