Next-generation headlamps provide a visible showcase of a brand’s technology and are key to gain an edge in the luxury-car market. This is why in its bid to overtake BMW as the world’s best-selling luxury-car maker, Audi wants to dazzle, not blind.
Innovations such as bright, energy-efficient LED headlights, smart high beams, and infrared-assisted spotlights that shine on potential road-side threats like deer also help BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz justify higher prices than mass-market competitors.
“Luxury-car margins are under pressure as the carmakers expand their lineups and mass-market vehicles improve in quality,” said August Joas, head of the global automotive practice at consultant Oliver Wyman in Munich. “New headlight technologies are innovations that are easily noticed.”
Audi’s latest headlamp technology, which is more advanced than competing systems from BMW and Mercedes, links computer-controlled LEDs with a camera to spare as many as eight vehicles from the glare of the high beams.
The system, called Matrix LED, was introduced in Germany in mid-November as a 2,400-euro ($3,200) option on the 74,500-euro A8 executive sedan. (The feature hasn’t been approved yet for the U.S.) BMW charges 2,500 euros for an LED lighting package, which can’t create non-blinding gaps for specific vehicles.
The new Audi system combines 50 independently controlled LEDs to create almost 1 billion different light variations, adjusting for traffic situations such as city and highway driving and oncoming cars and bicycles.
“We have redefined light,” Stephan Berlitz, Audi’s head of lighting development, said at the October presentation. “The driver always has the best possible light.”
Mercedes is looking to keep pace and will present a similar option, dubbed Active Multibeam LED, next year. The world’s third-largest luxury-auto brand earlier this year rolled out the new S-Class, the first car to abandon old-fashioned light bulbs and rely completely on LEDs throughout the car, underscoring under-the-hood technology such as six cameras and six radars that support safety systems.
LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, have replaced Xenon, which was first introduced by BMW in the 1990s, as the hot, new lighting technology for high-end carmakers. LEDs were used in headlights in 2007 by Lexus and closely followed by Audi, which had the first full-LED headlamps.
LED technology uses less energy and lasts longer than traditional halogen bulbs, which have been the industry standard for decades. The semiconductor-based lights can also be made smaller and offer more styling flexibility.
New lights link to the navigation system and start illuminating corners even before the wheels are turned because the car knows where the road goes. For Audi’s Matrix LEDs, GPS technology also helps the car determine when to turn on the brights — at higher speeds in cities than rural areas.