The 2014 NAIAS set a new high-water mark for the amount, diversity, and quality of innovation in lighting design and technology. It’s no longer possible to say that the lighting race is primarily the province of German makers; the world’s automakers are now all on board. Without exception, each and all of the worlds makers who sell in the American market had some remarkable lighting. And each maker brings a different perspective and philosophy to the task of using the new tools advanced lighting brings into the toolbox.
It’s clear the industry as a whole is learning to use the prodigiously expanded design opportunities created by advanced lighting to project and refine visual brand signatures. Some makers are using lighting design to tie all their models together for a strong family-resemblance aspect. Other makers are closely tailoring the design of the lamps on a particular model to accentuate image, message, and/or branding aspects of that particular model as a whole. Still others are taking a less introverted approach, using the new design possibilities as a billboard or halo to advertise not only the car’s level of technology, but also to evoke broad concepts such as futurism or neatness. And differentiating the various trim or specification levels of a vehicle by dint of different lights remains a popular tactic.
LED headlamps are rapidly marching outward beyond their former walled garden of eco-focused and premium cars and into the high volume mass market. Toyota scores an important coup with an American-market milestone: standard-equipment LED low beams on every single Corolla—and with that mass-market model’s popularity, there will be a lot of them. Increased use of LED headlamps means we have more opportunities to map out the terrain. Some aspects of LED headlamp design, such as lens texturing to fine-tune the beam, are now beginning to be discernible as general design principles or as peculiarities of a specific lamp.
The popularity of LED DRL is increasing at a galloping pace even though American DRL regulations are much more permissive than the European ones that kickstarted the increasingly widespread adoption of LED DRLs. To some degree this can be understood in simple cost-of-production terms: vehicles more or less throughout the world outside North America now have to have DRLs, and they’re allowed in the US, so why not just leave them on. But the design prospects that can be realised with DRLs are just irresistible to the vehicle designer. Smooth or dotty, homogeneously lit or glinty, thick or thin, linear or circular or curvilinear—all kinds of possibilities to create and shape the “facial expression” of the vehicle.
LED rear lamps also continue to grow in popularity and diversity of design, though we are still in a stage wherein some models are straddling the fence between incandescent and LED—or even hopping across it in both directions with subsequent model redesigns. The cost/benefit ratio is still not uniformly in favour of LEDs, though as LED cost continues to drop and packaging constraints and electrical power budgets continue to squeeze tighter, the day is foreseeable when LED rear lighting will be the norm. LED front turn signals have been slower to gain traction, in large part because of the higher cost of attaining the relatively high intensities required for this function—rear turn signals have lower minimum allowable intensities. This year, though, a noticeable number of new or refreshed vehicle models have LED front turn signals.
There’s a definite continuation of another trend we noticed last year: lighting content and technology advancements even in the traditionally conservative pickup truck segment. There are LED DRLs, LED tail lamps, bifunctional projector headlamps. No LED headlamps on a pickup truck yet; perhaps next year.
Concept cars on display this year shows a conspicuously improved quality of nonfunctional dummy-lights compared to previous shows. Without exception, all such lights are envisioned as LEDs, and the dummy-lights, by and large, look “almost real”.
The retro trend, while perhaps not as red-hot as it was a few years ago, is still evident in design cues being picked up from iconic classic cars and applied to today’s versions of the same models or to all-new vehicles designed in the spirit of the old ones. And makers are gradually adding more technology callouts and brand logos to their lighting units. Vehicle lighting has well and truly moved past the era of commodity lighting and into its own as an important pillar of vehicle design and technology.