Just as lighting suppliers are regaining profitability after a costly changeover to clear lenses, new technological developments are threatening profits again.
Major players among automotive lighting specialists such as Hella and Valeo reported higher profits last year. They had completed the heavy investments to upgrade the cosmetic appearance of many lighting parts after automakers shifted to clear lenses.
But to remain competitive, lighting suppliers say they need capital and personnel resources for research on several fronts. Because so many developing technologies will reach the market in five to eight years, it is difficult to profitably develop a full range of products to meet customer demands, suppliers say.
For example, suppliers have invested heavily in several types of adaptive front lighting systems, or AFS, but have few confirmed orders yet. Lighting specialists already worry about whether halogen or xenon headlamps will prevail.
Automakers and lighting suppliers still debate prices and costs, said one industry executive. He said additional investment is needed because all elements of lighting systems are now visible and components must be made brighter and more metallic looking.
Carmakers are putting more emphasis on lighting to give a distinctive look to new model ranges.
"Front and rear lights remain a major signature element," says Konrad Weigl, sales and business development director for Valeo Lighting Systems.
But Weigl expects the prevalance of chrome seen in some recent clear lighting designs to be toned down in future models.
"There is a trend to have a little less metal and chrome," because some headlights have become too dominant in car styling, he said.
The pace of change is accelerating, especially with the development of xenon front lighting systems, adaptive front lighting systems and rear lights that use light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Others are expected to show brake force display and adaptive front lighting at the Frankfurt auto show in September. Weigl expects regulation and consumer preferences to establish new standards in both areas in the next few years.
Xenon lighting systems currently represent 7 to 12 percent of European new vehicle sales, but forecasts for 2009 range from 12 percent to 50 percent. The latest development is bi-xenon lighting - replacing the traditional system of separate low beam and high beam with a single xenon light source, switching between low and high beam via a movable shutter. One industry executive expects bi-xenon and dynamic AFS to develop together.
"We would expect to see a bi-xenon/dynamic AFS combination become the optional lighting standard on the midrange to upper segments," said Wolfgang Hendrischk, international director of technical marketing at Hella.