Laser Automotive Lighting
The incandescent bulb invented by Thomas Edison in 1879 has shown remarkable longevity in automotive applications. Automotive LED applications had a market leadership position for almost a decade. In the near-future automotive lighting market innovation will soon be pioneered by lasers. The market reign of LEDs is not coming to an end already, but it’s notorious position as a technology leader might soon be threatened. Lasers will become the next generation of automotive lighting technology.
Lasers are a more efficient and precise way of directing light. That is precisely the basic requirements of automotive lighting systems. Automotive lighting requires directional and flexible applications. Laser technology is capable of delivering this as a package, although as part of a complex optical system. Laser technology allows light to focus and project exactly where it’s required. LED technology tends to spread light, making it harder to control optically. Laser technology combines the high-brightness benefits of a lamp with the reliability, long-life, and efficiency of LEDs.
Lasers also beat LEDs where it matters most: efficiency. At the moment LEDs are still more efficient at turning electricity into light, though laser efficiency is rapidly catching up. But for overall system efficiency, it’s no contest: LEDs are nowhere near as good at getting the light to where you want it to go. Lasers can be beamed into a fiber-optic strand and lose only 10 to 20 percent of its initial energy, as opposed to what an LED could lose up to 90 percent. A pair of old halogen headlights drew about 120 watts from a car’s battery; a couple of today’s best LED headlights draw roughly 40 W. Laser light’s usage is projected to drop below 30 W.
For general lighting, what makes the lasers attractive is that the technology can be packed much more densely on a chip than LEDs can. Laser-based lights would not only be more energy efficient on a cost-per-lumen basis but also more flexible, able to work as spotlights or floodlights at the flick of a switch. If costs continue to fall laser lights could make the leap to general automotive use in roughly 10-20 years. Laser diodes are significantly smaller than rival LEDs, therefore you can position them anywhere in a vehicle and transmit their output light via fiber optics. That flexibility allows designers to improve headlight styles, personalise vehicle branding, save space and redistribute weight.
BMW and Audi both plan to introduce laser lighting into production, as the new technology is poised to challenge LEDs as the industry’s showcase high-tech lighting. BMW will feature laser high beams as optional equipment in its i8 plug-in hybrid coupe, while Audi presented the Sport Quattro concept with laser high-beam headlamps.
A few hurdles remain, for example downsizing the overall system, improving quality, and ensuring durability. As with LEDs, system cooling is a major challenge. Directing airflow over the lamps is an obvious approach, supplemented by motorized fans or conductive materials. Numerous safety measures also have to be considered and significantly improved.
Given the nature of automotive evolution, its only a short time until everyone tries to catch up with the pioneers. Soon other vehicle manufacturers, in partnership with lighting suppliers, will develop and launch their own applications of laser technology. The race is on with lasers locked and loaded into action.
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