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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 before.

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.  

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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 turn signals.

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


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