Not satisfied with headlights that see around corners, suppliers and automakers are developing lighting systems that adapt to the weather and get brighter at high speeds.
Mercedes-Benz is the first to offer Hella's specialized xenon system, which brightens the lights at speeds above 55 mph and 68 mph. Mercedes says those speeds are most likely on roads without oncoming traffic. The system is about a $2,000 option on the E class.
Suppliers take different approaches. Hella KGaA Hueck & Co.'s VarioX system uses a moving drum to change the light pattern. Visteon Corp. has different shutters to change the light pattern. Automotive Lighting uses two or three devices.
"The module is lifted, the control unit gives more power to the xenon bulb; and, if there is room, we can also add a halogen spotlight," says Michael Hamm, Automotive Lighting's lighting development boss. "This way, we can fully exploit the limits set by regulation" in Europe.
But Visteon's Rainer Neumann, head of lighting development, warns that new lights may be tough to sell.
"We have found that for the end customer, it can be difficult to see an actual benefit," he says.
Xenon-based adaptive lighting technology adds safety, but vehicle designers want more freedom to change styling and are focusing on light-emitting diodes.
Next spring, Toyota Motor Corp. will offer LED headlamps on its Lexus LS 600h upper-premium sedan.
Although Toyota will beat competitors to market, its headlight units use LEDs only for the low beams. LEDs are not yet powerful enough for high beams.
European suppliers say LED technology is improving. They expect a surge of new cars with LED headlights by 2008 or 2009.
Some say that as LEDs become more powerful and less expensive, they eventually may replace xenon.
"LED headlights initially will be more expensive than xenon headlights, but the technology is still at an early stage," says Konrad Weigl, Valeo SA's lighting sales boss.
"The price will come down (to the same price as) xenon in about 2012 and drop further thereafter."
Daniel Veitner, Hella's lighting sales boss, says styling is driving premium brands to offer LEDs.
"LEDs do not offer more functions than xenon lighting systems at the moment," he says. "But the light color is even more white than xenon, and LEDs allow new styling features."
The battle between technologies will intensify. Some say xenon will remain popular because some customers like the way it looks.
But one engineer says flatly: "When LEDs become cheaper than xenon, it is the end of xenon."
You may e-mail Jens Meiners at [email protected]