For a number of years, car manufacturers have been obsessed with LED lighting, with many believing it was the future of exterior lights for vehicles.
However, the game has changed again as the rapid advancements in our technology have paved the way for a new and exciting alternative.
Laser headlights may sound like something from a futuristic movie, but thanks to the popular German maker, BMW, the future is now.
So, just what can laser technology do for car headlights? More to the point, is this a good thing?
Let’s find out.
Understanding How Laser Headlights Work
You may be familiar with laser technology in various ways by now. It’s used to read information on DVDs, it can scan barcodes at the local supermarket, and it is also the preferred choice for many people who want better eyesight without wearing glasses.
Speaking of lasers in the eyes, remember those little laser pen toys when you were younger? If you were lucky enough to have one, no doubt you were scolded once or twice by your parents and warned about shining them into people’s eyes.
And yet, today we are looking at cars with laser headlights. Surely the same technology risks blinding everyone on the road at night, right?
Well, not quite.
The lasers being used aren’t going to blind everyone, nor are they the same type used by the evil genius in a spy movie. That means you don’t have to worry about getting sliced in half if you walk in front of its beam.
No, it would seem that BMW and Audi have figured out a safe way to use lasers, which doesn’t actually endanger human lives or eyesight.
This is how it works:
The Push for Laser Headlights
The two big German car brands are making a push for laser-powered headlights, a pitch largely fronted by claims that the technology can deliver performance 1000 times greater than any LED headlights.
They are adamant that the method of using phosphorus to convert the laser into white light is very safe, and also very powerful.
But what happens if your car’s super-powered laser lights get damaged somehow? If you are in a fender-bender that smashes your headlights, will a dangerous blue laser beam suddenly burst from the car and eviscerate everything in front of it?
According to BMW, we shouldn’t worry because if the lights are damaged then they automatically shut down with the typical German efficiency the world has come to expect from the manufacturer.
It would seem that laser headlights are so brilliant that the mere fact they can’t tragically malfunction to epic movie proportions is almost a little disappointing.
The question is, do we really need this advanced tech in our car lights?
3 Key Benefits Of Laser Headlights
Make no mistake about it:
Lasers are a form of revolutionary technology. Just as lasers have miraculously given people their eyesight back, they can also do wonders for driving at night or in poor visibility conditions.
Here are three big benefits of using lasers for vehicle lighting.
They Are Energy Efficient
Laser-powered lights are roughly twice as efficient as LED lights, which means using these is easier on your battery and alternator.
Furthermore, the light from laser-powered headlights is about 1000 times as bright, even if you’re only using half the power. As they are much powerful, laser lights are able to illuminate much longer distances than LED lights.
They Have Exceptional Light Quality
A side-effect of the phosphorous is that the light color temperature is very close to that of natural daylight.
The Color Rendering Index (CRI) is the metric used to rate lighting sources, with a value of 100 being the maximum rating. While LED lights score between 70 and 80, laser-powered headlights typically rank in the mid-90s.
There is no other technology used in headlights that combines lighting quality and energy efficiency to such great effect.
They Offer Superior Performance
Due to the compact nature of these lights, they are easy to package and transport. Also, they offer more flexibility for manufacturers in the design process.
Because of this, manufacturers can exercise more control on the direction of light. This means the lights not only have a longer range, but are also safer as the optical design makes sure the laser light won’t dazzle other drivers.
What Is the Big Catch?
They sound great, don’t they?
But here’s the thing:
Laser is still a relatively new technology and is yet to go mainstream in the automobile business. BMW and Audi are the only major brands currently using these lights.
The main reason for this is because the technology only works on high beams at the moment. As you might guess, this doesn’t come cheap.
The current design used by BMW employs six high-tech lasers in each headlamp, and the set of 12 will cost about $$$. For some people, that’s the budget for an entire car, plus another car for the wife, and one for their teenage son.
The high price tag is definitely a stumbling block in taking this technology mainstream. To compound the problems, the U.S. market isn’t embracing the change with open arms.
Laser Headlights to Be Banned in the U.S.
With laser in your headlights, the system is able to permanently reside in high-beam mode. Drivers can dim their lights as needed, but with this tech, there is no need for dual light sources on each headlight. No longer will we need to use both high-beam and low-beam.
And therein lies the problem.
In the ‘Land of the Free’, you can find a hefty rulebook on automobiles that is over 1000 pages long. Among the many precise and pedantic regulations is one rule that says cars sold in the USA must have separate sources for high beams and low beams.
The German brands are currently in negotiations with regulators in the U.S. to see if they can approve a matrix system, but it could be a long journey to legality Stateside.
Christian Müller is an analyst at IHS Markit. He explains the difficulties that the technology faces trying to break into the American market.
“If there is no proven safety benefit for new innovations, it is very hard to change any regulations even to permit something like matrix laser headlights.”
Without enough proof that laser technology offers adequate life-safety benefits, the matrix system is going to be a hard sell. It took eight years to get single-source headlights approved in Europe, so Audi and BMW may have to be patient.
To Laser or Not to Laser?
With the benefits of energy-efficiency, power and range, it certainly seems clear that laser-powered headlights have a bright future ahead of them.
In addition to the performance advantages, the technology allows manufacturers to create more compact, lightweight headlights. These are easily packaged and transported.
The big caveat right now is the price tag. However, even that should look good once the technology goes mainstream. The components used in a laser light are considerably smaller than the parts in LED lights, so over time, these headlights will be much more economical to manufacture.
For now though, laser headlights aren’t mainstream. As they still require a regular HID or LED system to operate in tandem, the low/high beam conundrum of the U.S. is a big sticking point right now.
Another potential concern is that the laser lights create a lot of heat, which invariably takes more time to cool down.
While that doesn’t threaten humanity on the planet, it might lead to your curious children burning their fingertips.
It could be a long way down the road before laser-powered headlights are in every vehicle. But with the immense potential of this technology, we can already see that day coming.