Car Tech 101: Shine a light on headlight technology
Car Tech 101: Shine a light on headlight technology
4:56

Car Tech 101: Shine a light on headlight technology

Auto Tech
-First, a sad little history lesson. The United States has always been dead last in new headlight technology, not 'cause we're stupid but because how our regulations have been. U.S. vehicle regulations forever didn't allow designers to use new light sources, new ways of shaping the light, didn't even allow them to use covered fared-in headlights long after Asian and European manufacturers were allowed to do so. We've always been in the dark ages here. What we had were these, sealed beam headlights; basically glorified flashlight bulbs, if you ask me. You either had a pair of 7's or 4, 5's and that was it. Things have changed. Okay. First off, HID or high-intensity discharge, this is kind of a general term for lights that use as a source of illumination, an arc instead of a burning filament, the way sealed beam headlights did. Frankly, those old sealed beams aren't a whole lot different than burning a candle. More specifically, HIDs are usually xenon headlights. That means they have a xenon gas-filled capsule which the gas is being excited by a couple of nodes, electrical nodes, passing very high voltage across a gap. You'll see a sticker off under the hood showing you a high-voltage warning. Bi-xenon simply means that xenon arc technology is used for both low and high beams. LED is the newest headlight tech in production, though only on a few cars still. LEDs offer strong though not the highest light output, but combine that with the lowest power consumption and the greatest flexibility in design. You can style them into almost any surface on a car. But LED light output is quite sensitive to swings in temperature. That's a problem on the road. So, this helps make them complicated to engineer and part of why LED headlights remain pricey. They're $1600 extra on an Audi A8, for example. Laser headlights were coming if you believe BMW. I'm pleased to report this will not be like mounting a couple of huge laser cat toys on the front of your car. Instead, the lasers actually point back at a set of tiny mirrors on the housing that then reflect that laser light out on the road. The benefits here are incredible precision and flexibility of brightness and beam shape, and reportedly, even lower power consumption than LED. And yes, like the lasers at a 70's rock concert, these can project shapes in the air, like a warning triangle near your car when it's disabled. The first big change in beam shaping happened in the 80's with lenses. Old sealed beams used faceted lenses on the front to shape the beam. New technologies began to rely on a faceted reflector behind the bulb. You can spot the difference right away by a clear lens on the front that basically just keeps dirt and water out. Headlight leveling became common soon after and it can be done either automatically or via a simple manual system with a spin wheel. Either way, it's meant to compensate for vehicle loading that tends to cast the headlights up into the sky. Adaptive or steerable front headlights maintain direction of the light where your steering wheel is pointed. This goes back to early [unk] and even the Tucker, though with limited success until modern technology got rid of the motors and linkages they used to use and dropped in more reliable modern actuators about 10 years ago. Another beam-shaping tech you can easily spot is a projector lens, very prominent on a lot of Acura cars, for example. This plays as a convex eyeball-looking lens in front of the light source to throw the light aided by a mechanical shield between the lens and the ball that moves up and down to change the cutoff between high and low-beam. And Audi is about to roll out matrix-beam headlights that would use addressable LED arrays to send high-beam light all over the road all the time except making carve outs in the beam when it detects oncoming traffic. So, no more separate low and high-beam at all. Europeans will get this $3000-option first; Americans may have to wait a while because of a decades-old law that says headlights in this country must have high and low-beam modes. And generally, there's a big discussion on the car business now about defaulting all cars to high-beam and using low-beam as the conditional mode instead of vice-versa, the way it is today. Okay. Bottom line. Now, I assume [unk] of car tech these days, headlight technology is becoming more and more the domain of the carmaker and less something you're gonna graft on later using after-market parts. One notable exception, though, are high-intensity discharge xenon kits. There are a ton of those out there you might try retrofitting to your car. Be careful on the install. They generate some wicked voltage. But in terms of things like steerable headlights, LED headlights, laser headlights, obviously, you're not gonna install those on your existing car. You're gonna get them on a car when you buy it.

Up Next

Crash Testing New Electric Cars Proves They're Typically Safer
ev-crash-tests-00-02-09-11-still260

Up Next

Crash Testing New Electric Cars Proves They're Typically Safer

See What Makes the Best Tire for Your Electric Car
ion-evo-as-suv-ih01a-motion-graphics-mp4-00-02-48-12-still001

See What Makes the Best Tire for Your Electric Car

Why Are So Many Electric Cars, Scooters and Bikes Burning?
ev-battery-fires-00-02-02-15-still243

Why Are So Many Electric Cars, Scooters and Bikes Burning?

Seen the New 2023 Prius? Here's Why It's Turning Heads
2023-prius-reveal-b-roll-toyota-mp4-00-00-39-19-still001

Seen the New 2023 Prius? Here's Why It's Turning Heads

The Bestselling EVs of 2022
best-selling-evs-2022-00-02-00-17-still233

The Bestselling EVs of 2022

Best Dash Cams: A Buying Guide
cnet-buyers-guide-dashcams-2022-00-00-27-07-still086

Best Dash Cams: A Buying Guide

GM's Electric Pickups Head On: Comparing the Sierra EV to the Silverado EV
b-roll-gmc-sierra-ev-denali-edition-1-gmc-mp4-00-03-33-14-still003

GM's Electric Pickups Head On: Comparing the Sierra EV to the Silverado EV

Meet a Mind-Bending Hybrid: The Sono Sion Solar-Grid EV
sono-sion-00-09-01-10-still220

Meet a Mind-Bending Hybrid: The Sono Sion Solar-Grid EV

These Are the Cars That Qualify Now for the New Tax Credit
large-15747-2023-id-4-volkswagen

These Are the Cars That Qualify Now for the New Tax Credit

Don't Buy an EV Until You See the Most Important Ones Coming in 2023
221007-yt-electrified-best-evs-coming-in-2023-3

Don't Buy an EV Until You See the Most Important Ones Coming in 2023

Tech Shows

The Apple Core
apple-core-w

The Apple Core

Alphabet City
alphabet-city-w

Alphabet City

CNET Top 5
cnet-top-5-w

CNET Top 5

The Daily Charge
dc-site-1color-logo.png

The Daily Charge

What the Future
what-the-future-w

What the Future

Tech Today
tech-today-w

Tech Today

Latest News All latest news

First Drive in the All-Electric 2024 Fiat 500e
240417-site-fiat-500e-ev-drive-program-thumbnail-v3

First Drive in the All-Electric 2024 Fiat 500e

Laptop Buying Guide: What to Look For
laptop-buying-guide-2024-00-02-36-12-still001

Laptop Buying Guide: What to Look For

Boston Dynamics Retires Its HD Atlas Robot
p1022506-00-00-01-20-still001

Boston Dynamics Retires Its HD Atlas Robot

Taste-Testing 6 Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks
applecider-160424-land-00-00-06-18-still001

Taste-Testing 6 Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks

Testing BruMate's Leakproof Tumbler
brumate-160324-land-00-00-47-14-still001

Testing BruMate's Leakproof Tumbler

Tips and Tricks for the AirPods Pro 2
airpods-pro-2

Tips and Tricks for the AirPods Pro 2

Most Popular All most popular

First Look at TSA's Self-Screening Tech (in VR!)
innovation

First Look at TSA's Self-Screening Tech (in VR!)

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra Review: More AI at a Higher Cost
240123-site-samsung-galaxy-s24-ultra-review-4

Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra Review: More AI at a Higher Cost

'Circle to Search' Lets Users Google From Any Screen
circlesearchpic

'Circle to Search' Lets Users Google From Any Screen

Asus Put Two 14-inch OLEDs in a Laptop, Unleashes First OLED ROG Gaming Laptop
asus-preces-00-00-25-11-still003

Asus Put Two 14-inch OLEDs in a Laptop, Unleashes First OLED ROG Gaming Laptop

Samsung Galaxy Ring: First Impressions
samsung-galaxy-ring-clean

Samsung Galaxy Ring: First Impressions

Best of Show: The Coolest Gadgets of CES 2024
240111-site-best-of-ces-2024-1

Best of Show: The Coolest Gadgets of CES 2024

Latest Products All latest products

2025 Audi Q6, SQ6 E-Tron: Audi's Newest EV Is Its Most Compelling
cnet-audiq6

2025 Audi Q6, SQ6 E-Tron: Audi's Newest EV Is Its Most Compelling

Hands-On with Ford's Free Tesla Charging Adapter
pic3

Hands-On with Ford's Free Tesla Charging Adapter

Nuro R3 is an Adorable Self-Driving Snack Bar
240320-site-nuro-r3-first-look-v1

Nuro R3 is an Adorable Self-Driving Snack Bar

First Look: The $349 Nothing Phone 2A Aims to Brighten Your Day
240304-site-nothing-phone-2-first-look-v3

First Look: The $349 Nothing Phone 2A Aims to Brighten Your Day

Best of MWC 2024: Bendable Screens, AI Wearables and More
240229-site-best-of-show-at-mwc

Best of MWC 2024: Bendable Screens, AI Wearables and More

This Concept Laptop from Lenovo Has a Transparent Display
240225-site-lenovo-translucent-laptop-concept-v3

This Concept Laptop from Lenovo Has a Transparent Display

Latest How To All how to videos

Tips and Tricks for the AirPods Pro 2
airpods-pro-2

Tips and Tricks for the AirPods Pro 2

How to Watch the Solar Eclipse Safely From Your Phone
screenshot-2024-04-03-at-15-47-11.png

How to Watch the Solar Eclipse Safely From Your Phone

Windows 11 Tips and Hidden Features
240311-site-windows-11-hidden-tips-and-tricks-v2

Windows 11 Tips and Hidden Features

Vision Pro App Walkthrough -- VisionOS 1.0.3
VisionOS 1.0.3

Vision Pro App Walkthrough -- VisionOS 1.0.3

Tips and Tricks for the Galaxy S24 Ultra
240216-site-galaxy-s24-ultra-tips-and-hidden-features-2

Tips and Tricks for the Galaxy S24 Ultra

TikTok Is Now on the Apple Vision Pro
tiktok-on-vision-pro-clean

TikTok Is Now on the Apple Vision Pro