A Bright New Face
Swap headlights for LEDs and what do you get? A car that's easy on the eyes.
By Thomas Mucha

(Business 2.0) – The next big thing in automotive design is hard to miss: 40 brilliant-white LEDs staring right at you. Within the next few years, the new headlight technology, which uses the same type of light-emitting diodes found in everything from stoplights to digital cameras, will spark an overhaul of the $5.2 billion automotive lighting industry—along with the front end of every vehicle on the road.

From a car designer's perspective, the beauty of LEDs is their manipulability. Engineers at Visteon, a leading auto parts supplier, have figured out multiple arrangements that can concentrate the 1-millimeter LEDs' many narrow shafts of light into a beam bright enough to lead the way for a speeding car. The flexibility frees up designers who until now have been stuck working with big glass bulbs that had to sit in a car's front corners. Want lights behind the grille? The LEDs will fit nicely. How about a long, thin line of LEDs stretching all the way across the front of the vehicle? Entirely doable. "Headlights are the personality of a car," says Tom Matano, former chief designer at Mazda. "If you can make them piercing, aggressive, happier—whatever—you're going to have a car with lots more emotion."

LEDs also give drivers a better view of the road. They throw off a 25 percent whiter light than the upscale xenon lighting systems now used in highbrow imports. They'll also last several times longer than conventional lights—up to 10,000 hours, meaning you'll probably trade in your car before a single LED burns out.

The price for all this technology will initially be high to recoup R&D costs. Engineers at Visteon's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters spent five years tinkering with the lights and found that the LEDs, which are tiny semiconductors that glow when fed electricity, work best in cool spots. That doesn't exactly describe a 200-degree engine bay. In addition, the lights have to run off a complicated current regulator instead of directly off the battery. "The hardest part was making all the systems—mechanical, electrical, thermal—work together," says Mitch Sayers, who led Visteon's research. "With LEDs, it's a completely new set of circumstances." Because they could initially add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a car, LEDs will likely first appear in luxury vehicles. Look for a debut in 2007.

But the lights will ultimately peer out from all kinds of cars. The compact systems take up only half the room of conventional headlights, freeing up valuable space under the hood for bigger engines or other options. Visteon is already in discussions with virtually every automaker, for good reason: Such illuminating ideas don't come around very often. — THOMAS MUCHA