Lasers and Headlights: An Unexpected Challenge for Automobile Makers

Automobiles are slowly, but surely, going through a technological renaissance. In recent years, new developments in the way we drive, park, and power our vehicles have had lasting impacts on the simplicity and efficiency of how we get around. Yet, despite having cars that help us park, avoid traffic, and alert us when things go wrong, our headlights have stayed relatively the same, for decades.

That is not at all to say that there has been a lack of advancements. In fact, there are multiple cars with brand new lighting technology— they are just banned here. With a heavy concentration on European nations, vehicles are already on the market with brighter, longer-lasting, high efficiency headlights. Some, with likely much more to come, are implementing lasers into their automotive lighting.

Right now, LED headlights are leading the charge as the next-best-thing in the realm of automotive lighting. LED lights are more energy efficient, customizable, and often times, more cost-effective than the bulbs of yesterday. The bright LED arrays, as introduced in a few European automotive brands, shine brighter and longer.

Companies, like Varoc Lighting, are investing in new, more advanced lighting techniques for their automotive partners, with ample research and development going into laser headlights. While LED headlights will likely hit the market at a larger, much faster rate, lasers are next up to bat for in the future of automotive lighting. Audi showcased laser-based headlights at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show, claiming that the new headlights would be equipped into production vehicles in the future.

The technology is not perfect, yet. Current iterations still require the boost of multiple LED lights to reach the appropriate brightness and length of beam. Audi’s version consists of a blue laser projected onto a diode, which then emits a white light. The projector is small enough to fit comfortably in the headlight apparatus. Once the technology is better developed, the lights are anticipated to shine the length of a quarter mile, according to Audi’s Head of Lighting Operations, Stephan Berlitz.

The biggest challenge for the future of laser headlights? It is not energy related. It is not even technology related. In the United States, at least, it is the law. Regulations from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration require all U.S automobiles to have a high beam, a low beam, and nothing else. Worth noting is the fact that these guidelines have not been revised since Jimmy Carter was President. These guidelines have shelved LED and laser headlights for American consumers for the foreseeable future.

Audi is far from the only automobile maker held back from new developments in lighting. BMW’s i8 and others have had their advanced lighting systems barred from U.S. markets, where they are considered acceptable elsewhere. It comes down to the fact that regulations on headlights and other automotive lighting have not changed or adapted to new, emerging technologies; potentially hindering the future of American automotive sales and developments.

Based on tests and applications of the emerging lighting technologies, the lights would be intuitive enough to adjust to appropriate levels of brightness. Accidents caused by either A) forgetting to turn your lights on or B) having your high-beams on at an inappropriate time, would be reduced, or even eliminated.

A number of companies and collations have petitioned the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration to take a closer look at how their rigid regulations are hindering technological advancement. Many tech-minded automobile enthusiasts have also spoken out, in regards to revisiting the archaic regulations. Companies that are otherwise rival competitors have put their differences aside to push for the acceptance of the new technology, in the U.S. When differences of that magnitude are pushed aside in favor of new developments, it speaks volumes about how seriously automobile companies are taking these new headlight systems. It is less about a luxury product and more about technology that will further simplify our daily lives. Only time will tell if the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is willing to make the future a reality.