Volkswagen doesn’t think lasers are the future of headlights
WOLFSBURG, Germany — The importance of the headlight is so often overlooked. This is changing, as for 2018, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) made a Good headlight performance rating mandatory for any vehicle to obtain the agency’s full Top Safety Pick+ award. Volkswagen is working to improve its lighting systems, the first of which found on the third-gen Touareg: The IQ.Light LED matrix headlight. These units give a glimpse into the future of automotive lighting.
The IQ.Light LED matrix format uses 48 diodes for the low beam light and 27 for the high beam. Throw in the LEDs for the DRL and cornering functions, and each headlight has a total of 128 LEDs. The system uses the forward-facing camera to recognize different driving situations and provide optimum lighting for the conditions. For example, it changes the light pattern in a well-lit city environment, reconfiguring it for a dark country road or highway, and on it goes. One neat feature is the Dynamic Light Assist — it shuts off the LEDs that would blind an on-coming motorist without dimming the light in other areas, which maintains the best possible lighting.
Volkswagen has developed an affordable alternative to the costly laser-based headlight. The high-performance LED delivers more light than a conventional LED lamp, yet it is much smaller. Currently being tested in a Tiguan, the lamp produces three beam types. The first looks after the normal high beam with a broad light pattern that also illuminates the sides of the road. The second throws the light further down the road while preserving the width of the beam. The third is a concentrated spot that shines 550 metres down the road. To put that into perspective, a conventional high beam casts its beam about 250 metres. This means it’s able to compete with the performance of a laser-based headlight, but at a fraction of the price.
The next step, which is also undergoing testing, is the High Definition Liquid Crystal Display (HD LCD) headlight. The use of an LED light source and an LCD produces 30,000 pixels of light per headlight — by comparison, today’s high-end headlights have an 80-pixel resolution. The beauty of the system is that it can be tailored to suit any driver; it caters to those that like long, narrow high-beams and those that prefer a wider beam that illuminates the side of the road, and on it goes.
The interesting part is the headlight can project images onto the road. One scenario would see two lines that mark the width of the vehicle, which gives the driver a visual cue in tight confines. So, if the driver turns the steering wheel, the lines curve to predict the path of the vehicle in much the same way as a back-up camera with active guidelines. A night drive in a test mule highlighted the effectiveness of the new lighting system — it’s bright setup that bathes the road in a brilliant light that does not glare.
The next-gen will be the Micro-pixel LED headlight. While the functional and customization possibilities are the similar to those of the HD LCD headlight, the lamp provides better definition and illumination. At the heart of the system are three chips each producing 1,024 pixels of light. The beauty is each chip measures just 4×4-millimetres, which makes it ultra-compact. The headlight has a main LED light and the three micro-pixel lenses. Again, the individual pixels of light can be shut off to prevent glare and eliminate the blinding of other road users. While the current system employs 3,072 pixels per light, the future has the potential to bump that to 30,000 pixels.
The back-end of the car has not been forgotten in all of this — future LED matrix taillight lenses will have the ability to be customized and signal messages. The range runs from displaying a warning like a traffic jam ahead to showing the state of charge of an EV’s battery. It also allows the owner to customize how the taillights look — at this point the range of customization is limited as each prospective look has to be homologated to make it legal.
The old “see and be seen” adage is finally coming of age. Adaptive headlights provide vastly better visibility without blinding those coming towards the vehicle or those ahead. The need for improved illumination is very real, yet the prehistoric rules in the United States prohibit the use of these innovative systems. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) in the U.S. says, in part, that, “the purpose of the standard is to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from traffic accidents, by providing adequate illumination of the roadway.”
The fact, is the current regulation prohibits this basic tenet from being fulfilled to best effect — it actively rules the best headlights. While Canada has been more proactive and has changed the regulations to allow “Adaptive Driving Beam” or matrix-style headlights, the reality is importing these headlights solely for Canadian consumption is cost prohibitive. Thankfully, those at the FMVSS are looking at amending the rules. It’s about time!