LED lights are emerging as auto industry bling.
Once limited to the luxury segment, LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, now are cheap enough for mass-market models. The 2012 Kia Soul, for example, has LED daytime running lights and taillights.
Designers love them because the compact, bright lights give them freedom to convert plain-vanilla headlights and taillights into fashion statements.
By the 2016 model year, 29 percent of all vehicles produced in North America will have LED taillights, up from 19 percent in the 2011 model year, predicts L.E.K. Consulting of London.
The switch to LED headlights will be slower. Only 1 percent of North American-built vehicles will have LED headlights by 2016, while 12 percent will have xenon headlights, according to L.E.K.'s forecast.
As is typical for most new technologies, LEDs got their start in the industry's luxury segment. The 2000 Cadillac DeVille was the first U.S.-made light vehicle with LED taillights and a center high-mounted stop light, and other luxury brands followed suit.
Audi is known for its use of LED taillights and daytime running lights.
Taillights "have become a style statement," says Steffen Pietzonka, a vice president of marketing for Hella KGaA Hueck & Co., which produces LEDs for Audi.
Pietzonka adds, "Over the next four years, a lot of entry-level and mid-sized vehicles will have LEDs. It offers huge styling opportunities."
A case in point: The Dodge Charger's bold, full-width LED taillights have become a signature look for the brand.
LED brake lights have a safety advantage, too. They turn on within 200 milliseconds -- much faster than conventional incandescent lights -- giving trailing motorists more time to hit the brakes.
Now that automakers are getting more comfortable with LED taillights, they are starting to adopt LED headlights. Audi is a big user, for example, and Cadillac installed them on the Escalade.
But it will take longer for LED headlights to catch on, mainly because of their high cost. A no-frills halogen headlight costs automakers about $20, while a standard xenon headlight might cost $60 to $80.
By contrast, LED headlights might cost three times as much as xenon headlights, which is why they are confined mostly to the luxury segment.