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Laser headlights? Don't hold your breath

UPDATED: 9/12/13 12:38 pm ET - adds regulatory info

Automakers have been teasing us with demonstrations of laser headlights, but you shouldn't hold your breath.

A senior executive at Audi says LED headlights look so promising that there is no pressure to replace them with a new technology such as lasers.

Because lasers can generate a pinpoint of light, automotive engineers could shrink the optics in a headlight to create a very compact package. That would be cool, from an engineering point of view.

But lasers are not energy efficient, and they require a cooling system, says Wolfgang Huhn, Audi's chief of lighting development.

So when might lasers be ready for prime time?

"Maybe in 20 years," says Huhn. "Lasers are a nice high-tech device, but it's all marketing."

Ouch! Huhn is understandably focused on the Audi A8's new high-beam headlamp, which debuted Tuesday at the Frankfurt auto show. Twenty-five LEDs generate the high beam, which the motorist can leave on all the time for night driving.

When a camera mounted in the windshield detects an oncoming car, the computer automatically dims some of the LEDs to avoid blinding other motorists. Huhn says the computer can track as many as eight vehicles in the A8's path.

At this point, the only remaining issues appear to be regulatory, rather than technical. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to okay matrix LED high beams for U.S. roads. So Audi’s European customers will get first crack at this technology.

Hella builds the headlight; Osram supplies the LEDs and Bosch provides the camera. Audi developed its own software, which appears to be pretty sophisticated, since the LEDs can be turned on and off in 960 million combinations.

"Whoever controls the software controls the system," Huhn said. "This is what we want. We buy the camera and the headlight, but we control the software."

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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