HID Headlamps: Brighter, But Failing To Shine In The Mass Market

March 15, 2011
For some, the blueish, whitish beams of xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps are bothersome—or even blinding. But for most of us who have driven vehicles with them, it's hard to argue with their significantly improved visibility.

That opening line sounds, unfortunately, like it could have been written ten years ago. While it could be argued that HID lamps offer improved safety, their adoption rate has risen very slowly compared to other safety-tech features. According to HID supplier Osram Sylvania, in a press release from earlier this week, only about 22 percent of new vehicles in 2007 came with HID headlamps as standard equipment, and even by 2015 only 38 percent of vehicles are expected to offer it as either standard or optional. Demand, in cases where it's optional, is only expected to increase slightly.

Why? Part of the issue, as we see it, is that automakers have only offered HID headlamps as part of expensive option packages. And oddly, HID lamps seem to cost more in less-expensive vehicles. For instance, on the BMW 3-Series, they're a $900 standalone option, but on the 2011 Mazda3 they're only offered on the top Grand Touring model, as part of a $1,835 Technology Package, and on the 2011 Volkswagen GTI they're only included in the Autobahn model, which costs thousands more.

The other issue, of course, is that HID headlights got off to a rough start in the U.S. Initially their efficacy was questioned, and there was a lot of controversy over their glare—which can be made worse with a coating of road grime on lenses. Years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety administration logged thousands of complaints from motorists who were momentarily blinded by HID headlamps.

But it turns out, the positives of xenon lamps far outweigh the negatives. Safety studies failed to find any danger from the glare—just annoyance—and HID lamps produce three times the light output of halogen lamps, with better down-the-road illumination, a beam pattern that allows better peripheral vision while driving—something we've certainly noted over hundreds of test-drives—and whiter light that's better with the reflective paint used for road signs and lane markings.

Research has indicated that thanks to the higher illumination and the quality of the light, drivers of vehicles with HID lamps will see potential dangers 30 to 50 yards before drivers with halogen lamps.

Xenon HID lamps also use less power while putting out more light, and the lamps themselves last about 3,000 hours—three times that of halogens.

Meanwhile, Osram Sylvania has also advocated LED lighting in vehicles as a way to reduce electrical loads—especially for hybrids and electric vehicles. For the same light output as 240 watts of halogen high beams, the company's LED lamps draw 56 watts. Overall, according to a University of Michigan study from 2008, LED lights could save 50 percent of power in nighttime driving or 75 percent during daytime compared to traditional lamps.

[Osram Sylvania]

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