New Ford GT, 2015 Detroit Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
Old-style filament bulbs, ancient technology as they are, are finally being given notice in new cars. They’re being replaced at a rapid rate by light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are bringing not just better efficiency and an improved service life, as well as one other welcome benefit: tremendous flexibility for designers.
Thanks to the additional packaging freedom of LEDs, we’re seeing some far more attractive, original, and eye-catching lighting in vehicles—both inside and outside.
Headlights are just part of the potential. LEDs require only about 25 percent of the power that a comparable halogen headlight would, and they don’t require the heat concerns and ballasts of high-intensity discharge (HID, or xenon) headlamps.
Versus either of those other technologies, LEDs can be arranged with much tighter enclosures, potentially—giving designers more freedom to package headlights and taillights in a way that’s distinctive from brand to brand. However tight federal regulations will continue to limit some of the potential features of LEDs—like dynamic or variable-output lighting (to warn of an abrupt stop ahead, for example).
Interior and area lighting is another thing entirely, as it’s not as tightly regulated. With LEDs in the mix, ambient lighting is rapidly becoming the norm, with the hue and light quality catered to each specific brand; and in just a few years the puddle lamps below doors, which have been surprise-and-delight features in some vehicles like the 2015 Hyundai Genesis and Lincoln MKC, are already becoming quite widespread.
And that of course doesn’t even touch what’s happening in instrument panels, where LED backlighting, combined with OLED and LCD screens, are quickly making user-customizable displays quite common.
Stepping back to exteriors, and strictly to the essentials like headlights and taillamps, there’s still an astonishing level of originality showing through. Versus the lookalike halogen units of a decade or two ago, we can certifiably say we’re in a lighting renaissance.
We realize that stunning, one-of-a-kind lighting designs are to be expected on some of the most exclusive cars today—just look to the expressive exterior lighting in the upcoming Ford GT supercar as an example.
Yet limiting ourselves to mass-produced, sub-$100,000 vehicles, there are still plenty of breathtaking arrays. With those constraints in mind, click on to see some of today's most distinctive vehicle-lighting schemes.