Automakers Eye Laser Lights To Let Drivers See Farther At Night

March 5, 2014

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If you thought LED headlights were bright enough, automakers are looking ahead to even more powerful beams using lasers.

BMW has started producing laser headlights as an optional feature for its new plug-in i8 hybrid, which is expected to go on sale in Europe this summer. The lights are more energy-efficient, and some researchers say laser light technology is the next step in lighting after LEDs.

There’s no word yet on a U.S. release, though the company is working with the U.S. Department of Transportation to get the technology approved.

The headlights don’t actually shoot out lasers. A laser hits a fluorescent phosphorus substance inside the headlight to create a beam of extremely bright white light that is 10 times more intense than conventional sources, while boosting energy efficiency by 30 percent above LEDs, BMW says. Letting drivers see further at night makes it safer, says Thomas Hausmann, head of pre-development for lighting at BMW.

“It makes night a little bit more like day,” he says.

Of course, brighter headlights may not be a good thing for an oncoming car, deer or other animals crossing the road. Hausmann points out the new headlights are controlled by a camera, so if there’s a car coming, the lights will rotate and dim so the other driver isn’t blinded. The car also has an infrared system to warn the driver of humans or pedestrians crossing the road.

Like with LED headlights, BMW will start introducing the laser headlights in larger, more expensive cars, and the technology will move to the other cars over time, says Thomas Plucinsky, manager of corporate communications for BMW North America. Plucinsky also says the energy savings matter.

“As we move towards more electrified cars, any energy that is being used to power a light has to come from somewhere,” Plucinsky says. “It’s either coming from the fossil fuel that you’re burning or it’s coming from the battery that you’re carrying, like in an electric car.”

Laser lights are “the next natural evolution in lighting,” says Steve DenBaars, a professor and the co-director of the Solid State Lighting and Energy Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He explains that the lasers can be tightly focused, so the technology could be useful in even street lights or projectors.

“When you’re making a presentation and you’re trying to point a light on a screen, everybody uses a laser pointer. You can’t use a flash light, because it’s not a point light source and the light’s diverging,” DenBaars says. “[A laser light] puts a light exactly where you want it. You could imagine a bridge or a tunnel lit with laser lighting.”

DenBaars says it might take five to 10 years before laser lights become widespread, though some other companies have already picked up on this technology. Audi will debut a prototype racer with laser lights in the U.K. in April, and it presented a hybrid concept car with laser lights earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show. LG has already started selling a 100-inch “laser TV,” and Sony is expected to launch a laser projector this year.

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