Automotive lights have come a long way since the first Benz was built in 1885. The very first cars didn’t have any lights at all and had to be driven in the daytime. Actually, they had to be driven during nice weather in the daytime, as they also had no windows, roof or heater. At least they had nice leather couches (but no seatbelts… or disc brakes).
It didn’t take long before men adapted the most modern technology of the day and installed headlights. Sure, they were powered by acetylene and not very safe or efficient, but what on these embryonic vehicles was safe? In case you’re keeping score, the original design to heat a cabin interior came around 1910 when charcoal was used. At the risk of becoming repetitive, safety was not the first priority. One of today’s top manufacturers of lighting, German-based Hella KGaA, formed in June of 1899 and was an early adapter of that "modern" technology.
Electric Headlights Arrive
It wasn’t until 1912 that an automobile came out with electrically-controlled headlights, when that year’s Cadillac was introduced (it’s the red Caddy in the picture below, parked next to a green 1908 Caddy). Gases in headlights however never really went away. Sealed beam incandescent lights were the dominant force in lighting for more than half a century. Sealed beam headlights operate by using a filament to generate the light source, a reflector behind the filament to intensify the light and a series of prisms to refract the light to the intended area of the road ahead.
Tungsten, Quartz-Halogen and Xenon have all been used to varying degrees of success. Halogen headlights came to America in the early 1980s and became the standard later that decade. Their reign is over, though. While they will remain for a while on the more economical new cars, better, brighter and safer lights are taking over. These lighting systems are expensive right now, but like most new technologies, will probably become more affordable as they are perfected and more generally accepted.
A Long Lull in Technological Advancement
Backward-thinking bureaucrats and the special-interest groups that support their political campaigns have often gotten in the path of progress. Although that shouldn’t come as a surprise, it truly has affected the development of headlight technology. In 1968, federal regulations required that all cars be equipped with either two or four sealed-beam headlights. Moreover, the laws also banned any decorative or protective covers over headlights. That’s right, the United States government banned manufacturers from protecting their headlights! As manufacturers created materials that were more flexible than steel, several of these regulations limited their application. For many years after that, headlight technology was at a standstill.
This Ring Brothers customized 1971 Pantera, revealed this past year at SEMA, wouldn’t have been legal in the United States when it was built!
Decades prior to the federal regulations, individual states had their own laws that deterred automobile manufacturers from practicing creativity. When the Tucker came out in 1948, one of its technological masterpieces, the “Cyclops eye,” was illegal in 17 states.
This light, located below the hood ornament, was connected to the steering wheel through a system of pullies that allowed it to turn with the steering wheel. Due in part to the aforementioned regulations, the concept of turning headlights wasn’t seen again for nearly four decades, when Mercedes and Lexus began using a much more technologically advanced design to accomplish the same effect.
In the early 1990s, BMW gave birth to Xenon High Intensity Discharge (HID). That’s the “blue lights” for the uninitiated (although you can actually get them in a range of "colors"). These lights, unlike their halogen predecessors, weren’t just a drop-in replacement for less effective incandescent bulbs. Because they run on 80-volt power (after an initial jump of 15,000 volts), HIDs require ballast and an igniter.
The latest and greatest lighting technology to hit the automotive world are Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). They are an improvement over their predecessors on every level: They are brighter; they are less blinding to oncoming drivers; they use less energy and their compact size practically makes “headlights” a non-factor in automotive design. Although LEDs are more efficient and don’t burn as hot as other types of headlights, they do generate excess heat (energy) out the back so they aren’t quite the last word (yet) in headlight technology.
For those of us who love to go off-roading, LEDs are a miracle of technology...you can now have all of the lumens your heart desires (assuming that your wallet is in agreement). Need more light? Not a problem! Best of all, they are far less likely to damage your alternator than your wallet! Imagine how many batteries you’d need to get this much light using incandescents.
Headlights are a very important aspect of a car’s style, and one of today’s primary drivers of technological advancement to the technology of headlights. Who among us hasn’t seen sports cars with retractable headlights? Of course, they’re most noticeable when one of the doors won’t close and they sit there winking at you as you diagnose a bad actuator or find the body damage that is causing the door to jam. The 1936 Cord 810 was the first to employ this setup. On the Cord’s dash were two small crank handles; one for each headlight; the driver merely had to turn the two cranks and headlights rose on the fenders, illuminating the road! Thanks to LEDs showing up in nearly every exotic and luxury car, pop-up headlights haven’t been seen on new cars out of the factory since the 2004 Chevrolet Corvette and 2004 Lotus Esprit.
Federal regulations have, in recent years, allowed colored headlights, Aside from the blue glow of Xenon lights (as well as all the fake blue-glass ones), you can purchase aftermarket lights in many colors. The 2014 Corvette below has yellow factory headlamp covers, whereas the Jeep’s red eyes are the product of aftermarket manufacturing.
Lighting has always been a compromise between helping the driver to see and not blinding the other drivers on the road. If not for the need to protect the retinas of everyone else on the highway, people could install all the lighting they would want on their vehicles (kinda like this guy).
Several manufacturers have attempted to make use of automatic dimming systems in their vehicles. These systems use varying technologies, such as sensors, cameras and photoresistors to sense an oncoming vehicle and dim the lights appropriately.
Despite the fact that, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 25% of traffic takes place during nighttime hours - yet more than half of all highway fatalities occur during those hours. Obviously, there are factors other than light that contribute to these stats, but the lack of lighting has historically been a problem with night driving. Auto and truck manufacturers have taken great strides since the inception of the automobile to improve on their lights. With LED lighting entering the automotive arena over the past decade, the path to safer night vision is (ahem) clear.