MUNICH, Germany -- LED front lights offer carmarkers advantages over conventional lighting.
But suppliers aren't certain whether the cost of light-emitting diode technology can be lowered enough to reach the mass market.
LED technology has already found its way on some vehicle exteriors - but in taillights, not headlamps. For example, both the 2006 Mercury Mountaineer SUV and 2006 Cadillac DTS feature LED taillights.
The expected advantages of LEDs are more styling flexibility, xenonlike performance at lower cost and vehicle-lifetime durability.
But the technology still is being developed.
The challenges for LEDs are clear: They must become more powerful, less costly and handle heat better.
"LEDs have to get cheaper by a factor of 2 or 2.5," said Michael Hamm, director for lighting technology and innovation at Automotive Lighting in Reutlingen, Germany.
Said Rainer Neumann, head of Visteon Corp.'s lighting development in Europe in Kerpen, Germany: "We have to reach the price level of xenon. We are not there yet, but the curve is falling exponentially."
Suppliers wouldn't say how much it costs to make LED or xenon front lights.
Customers pay about $870 to $1,240 for xenon lights.
Neumann predicts LEDs will be cheaper than xenon lights in the long run. And assuming LED light output rises as sharply as expected, about half the number of LED units will be needed per function, suppliers say.
But while suppliers say LEDs may become cheaper than xenon lights, they will never reach the level of halogen lights, which are expected to remain the standard lighting source.
LEDs have undisputed advantages in adaptability, packaging and durability.
Although LED lights are more adaptable and durable than conventional lights, they are still too costly for widespread use. That hasn't stopped suppliers from experimenting with the technology. These LED prototypes are (from left) by Visteon, Valeo and Hella.
"Adaptive lighting functions, such as cornering lights, are easier to execute with LEDs," said Konrad Weigl, head of sales and business development at Valeo Lighting Systems.
Hella Lighting North America President Raymund Heinen says long-term costs are better.
"The increased durability of LEDs may lead to automotive headlamp systems without the need for replacement," he said.
Automakers could cut costs if they didn't need to design access to lamps for replacement.
LEDs also make it easier to meet pedestrian-protection rules. They can be placed anywhere on the front of a vehicle and need only half the space of halogen or xenon units.
Design benefits, too
LED technology gives the industry an alternative to the "clear glass" look once reserved for premium cars but which now is commonplace.
Designers like the possibilities.
"It is kind of a liberation," said Marc Florian, senior designer at GM's advanced design studio.
"The design possibilities are far greater than with halogen or xenon lights."
Suppliers hope carmakers won't price LEDs high to maximize profits as they did with xenon.
"LEDs are not an option just for Aston Martin," Visteon's Neumann said. "We want to conduct this differently, and we have to play together."
Valeo predicts that LEDs will be 15 percent of global front lighting by 2015.
You may e-mail Jens Meiners at [email protected]