Racing beyond LED to the next big thing -- OLED lighting

In a few years, the current generation of high-tech LED tail lights and headlights may look quaintly Victorian.

Lighting suppliers are rushing to develop the Next Big Thing: a super-thin lighting source -- dubbed OLED -- that creates a 3D look for instrument clusters, tail lights or brake lights.

An Organic Light Emitting Diode, or OLED, is a layer of material that lights up when electricity is passed through it via two electrodes.

Since it does not need a backlight -- such as a tungsten bulb, a conventional light-emitting diode or even a laser generator -- a vehicle's tail light does not require reflectors or other optics. Moreover, designers can create a 3D look by using multiple OLED layers.

Naturally, automakers have been eager to experiment with this stuff.

Toyota Motor Corp. installed an OLED console screen in the 2010-model Lexus RX, and in 2011, Kia unveiled a concept car fitted with an OLED instrument cluster.

In July, Audi showed a TT two-seater fitted with an experimental OLED tail light developed with Philips, Automotive Lighting, Merck and the University of Cologne.

Now Osram is getting into the act. Last week, the German lighting supplier rolled out its own OLED concept, a 3D tail light. Osram execs were naturally a little cagey about their customers' interest in this technology.

But given the industry's ongoing love affair with high-tech lighting, I'd expect OLED tail lights will catch on quickly.

You can reach David Sedgwick at