Automotive headlight technology has come a long way from the halogens. Advancements with HID (high intensity discharge) Xenon bulbs and LEDs have brought about more illumination and sophistication, and yet, in pace with semi-autonomous technology, the headlamp is going into innovative and intelligent areas unheard of before.
Safety regulations haven’t caught up to technological development in North America, so we have not been witness to many of these new creations. Audi and BMW have implemented laser lighting in a few of their top-shelf vehicles, while Mercedes-Benz is using one million micro-mirrors to project messages and navigational guides on the road, a feature in in the Maybach S-Class sedans.
These innovations are expected from luxury automakers in limited quantity, but not necessarily from a mainstream brand. That’s where Volkswagen aims to provide a more affordable vision of lighting.
Volkswagen’s IQ.Light LED Matrix – an option found in its all-new Touareg, an SUV no longer available in North America – is already one of the safest in the market, using 256 LEDs to illuminate the road up to 500 metres ahead. Its intelligence, however, takes it to a new level with instant anti-glare technology.
“For the Touareg, our Matrix high beams block out any light onto oncoming traffic or signs that might reflect it, as well as shifting light while cornering,” adds Mathias Thamm, Volkswagen’s lighting and vision, headlight technician. It even recognizes being in residential areas, automatically switching its main beam to a lower beam setting.
In a recent workshop, Volkswagen went beyond its current lighting to demonstrate a host of technologies that it hopes to incorporate over the next few years and beyond, in the expectation that regulations will adapt because of the rise of electrified and autonomous vehicles.
Its recipe to success: high-performance LED headlights.
“Laser lighting is very expensive, and with high-performance LED headlights, we get similar performance and quality at a fraction of the price,” explains Mathias Thamm, Volkswagen’s lighting and vision, headlight technician.
Using LEDs over laser lighting also saves costs on temperature sensitivity and added security measures that comes with using a laser.
Laser lighting provides the best range generation for main beam applications, but Volkswagen showed off just how close these still-developing high-performance LEDs are in its own 100-metre long tunnel centre in Wolfsburg, Germany. Unlike other automakers, Volkswagen works independently, void of a supplier, and has developed three different auxiliary headlights encased in one unit with individual light distribution that can be activated separately.
Volkswagen is also working on micro-pixel LED headlight technology formed by three micro-pixel LED chips. Each chip uses 1,024 pixels arranged in a 4-by-4 millimetre area to keep designs smaller and sleeker. The range and clarity of these chips project an ideal aspect ratio of 3:1 and, when all chips are put together (3,072 pixels in total), a true test of its full potential is revealed by Volkswagen through a clearly visible black-and-white movie playing in the distance.
That potential was continually seen through a series of customized 3-D holography and personalized lighting preferences.
All of it is seen as a communication tool between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. These new functions can be vital to messaging others when in distress, such as a 3D wrench icon projecting on its rear bumper or reflecting from various angles onto the road via its back taillight cluster.
It can also signal to pedestrians through an arrow, blinking light, or wording that they’ve been identified, making it safe to advance on a pedestrian crosswalk. The list of three-dimensional impressions goes on: parking assist lines, arrows pointing outward from a parallel parking spot, projected vehicle width lines when driving on country roads, various lights on door handles indicating whether its locked or unlocked, and finally, how much EV range is left.
EV usage is a large reason for advancements in lighting, because they are relatively quiet compared with combustion-engine powered vehicles, and can be a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Electric and autonomous cars don’t have the same acoustics as we’re used to," says Sandra Sturmat, VW’s designer of exterior light scenarios,. "Through lighting, we are finding ways for light behaviour to be a source of communication to others while on the road.”
Volkswagen talked about its 3-D holography evoking images of Star Wars where R2-D2 beamed Princess Leia as a hologram. As fictional as that sounds, the possibilities of lighting are endless and could soon become reality once legislation catches up to the innovation of lighting technology. With electrification and autonomous vehicle technology knocking on the door, Volkswagen’s in-house team is ready to take the lead on this new age of road communication.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.