Headlight revolution under way
Auto lighting is becoming brighter and more focused,
sometimes puzzling night drivers with what appear to brighter and
bluer lights on cars coming in the opposite direction.
It's not an optical illusion -- the headlights on some
oncoming cars really are brighter and bluer than anything we've seen
You might say it's the beginning of a headlight revolution.
These lights are called xenon (pronounced zee-non) headlights,
which usually come on more expensive luxury autos and also can be
purchased after-market for some more common models. They are also
known as high intensity discharge lights. They are brighter, more
focused on the road, and allow the driver to see further down the
road at night than the standard halogen headlights on most cars. They
come really close to turning night into day for drivers.
They are also expensive, usually adding at least $500
to the price of a new car, or $500 to $1,000 as after-market add-ons.
But not all models can be retrofitted with xenon lights.
Halogens on the way out
Automotive experts predict that within 20 years, the now-luxury-class
xenon will become as common as the halogen headlight, which was also
considered a luxury item when it was introduced more than 20 years
ago. They are more widely used in Europe than in the United States,
says Yvonne Pratt, marketing service coordinator of Hella Inc., which
produces xenon lights.
Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
is studying whether they are blinding to other drivers.
"The xenon light has a more focused beam than the
halogen headlight," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com.
"They have a bluer look because of the higher temperature and
are more distinctive. The lights do attract the attention of drivers
coming the other way and they really capture your attention in the
rearview mirror coming up behind you."
Adds Martin Padgett, editor of Thecarconnection.com,
"A xenon light has almost a perfect cut line above the beam so
that three feet above the windshield there is almost nothing."
The halogen light has a filament that causes it to have
a limited light output and lifespan. Osram Sylvania puts out a xenon
headlight, which it calls Xenarc HID, because the light comes from
an arc between two electrodes in the xenon-gas-filled bulb.
HID headlights have an output of 3,200 lumens compared
to 1,000 to 1,200 lumens in low-beam halogen lights.
Not all brights are xenon
Some of the confusion on the bright lights might come from SilverStar,
another product put out by Osram Sylvania, which is a halogen light
approaching, but not matching, the brightness of the xenon light.
They are 20 percent brighter than regular halogen headlights, but
have a lifespan of about half because they burn so much hotter.
They are, however, a lot cheaper. According to Ron O'Brien,
manager of corporate relations for Osram Sylvania, the SilverStar
runs about $40 a pair. O'Brien believes that complaints about bright
headlights blinding oncoming drivers stem more from misaimed headlight
beams and dirt on the lenses than from the new technology.
Hella Inc., also has another new set of auxiliary headlights,
called the DynaView, which actually light up corners and curves as
the driver turns the car, says Pratt. Each headlight has two H1 halogen
bulbs with the top bulb throwing a beam straight forward but a when
a car is going around a curve or making a turn, a sensor turns on
the lower bulb on that side to illuminate the inside of the curve
or turn. The bulb turns off automatically when the car is on the straightaway
again. They should be particularly helpful to long-distance truck
drivers and off-road enthusiasts.
Sounds revolutionary, but it isn't, really. The famous
1950s-era Tucker had three headlights, with the middle one swiveling
around as the car turned a corner.
The next auto lighting revolution, say the experts,
will come in the form of LED (light-emitting diode) lighting, which
is working its way from the rear lights to the headlights. The tiny
LEDs already are in use, ringing the headlights of one luxury BMW.
They are much smaller bulbs with no open air or gasses around them.
The light stems from a wire through a solid plastic dome with the
wire current heating up the plastic itself.
Another place you may have seen LED lights is on cars
that have turn signals on the side mirrors in addition to the standard
Several autos now have, as optional equipment, light-sensing
rearview mirrors which automatically dim the glare of the reflection
when the sensor captures the beam in the mirror instead of the driver
having to manually adjust the mirror with the little flip-lever usually
found on the bottom.
Another recent innovation is Night Vision, available
as an option on some Cadillacs at about $2,250. It's not a light,
but an infrared emitting camera-like device in the middle of the grill
that will capture the heat signatures of people or animals just out
of range of the low-beam lights. It then transmits the images, as
you see in spy or military thrillers, to a display on the windshield
to warn the driver.
Rod Gibson is a freelance writer based in Georgia.
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003