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BMW to introduce laser headlights

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September 7, 2011

BMW's i8 concept will be the first vehicle to sport laser headlights

BMW's i8 concept will be the first vehicle to sport laser headlights

In the past decade, LEDs have become increasingly popular for use on cars, mainly for use as turn signals, brake and park lights, and daytime running lamps, but more recently, also for use in headlights. Now BMW has revealed it is taking the next step in the development of vehicle headlight technology by working on the introduction of laser light headlights. The company says that laser light not only offers energy - and therefore fuel - savings, but could also enable entirely new design possibilities and light functions on vehicles to improve safety. It aims to have the technology ready for series production "within a few years."

While the prospect of cruising down the highway, arming the lasers and blasting obstacles to oblivion might sound appealing to some drivers, BMW says the originally bluish laser light beam isn't emitted directly, but is first converted by means of a fluorescent phosphor material inside the headlight into a pure white light that is suitable for use in road traffic. Therefore, the intensity of the laser light wouldn't pose any risk to humans, animals or wildlife and the emitted light would also be very bright and white, making it more comfortable to the eye.

Because it is a "coherent" light source, meaning its waves have a constant phase difference, BMW says that laser lighting can produce a near-parallel beam with an intensity that is a thousand times greater than LEDs. Additionally, laser lighting boasts less than half the energy consumption of LED headlights, which BMW points out would lead to fuel savings. Whereas LED lighting generates around 100 lumens per watt, laser lighting generates around 170 lumens.

The size of the individual laser diodes, which are just 10 microns in length, are also one hundredth the size of the one-millimeter-long, square-shaped cells used in LED lighting. BMW says this opens up all sorts of new design possibilities for integrating the light source into the vehicle. Although it's theoretically possible to radically reduce the size of the headlights, BMW says it has no plans to do so. Rather, the laser headlights would retain the conventional headlight surface area dimensions, with the reduced depth opening up new possibilities in the positioning of the headlights and the body styling of vehicles.

BMW says the laser lighting technology would be compatible with its current range of lighting technologies, such as Adaptive Headlights, the "Dynamic Lighting Spot" spotlighting system and the "Anti-Dazzle High-Beam Assist." Although it doesn't elaborate, BMW says the laser lighting would also enable the implementation of completely new functions, which will have minimal power consumption.

BMW's laser lighting will get its first airing in the BMW i8 concept. With a production model of that vehicle set to launch in 2013, lasers might be lighting up our roads very soon.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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25 Comments

oh, imagine the cost of repair, the early BuMmerW HID bulbs on the 740 make me iL were 300 coconuts each bet when not if, but when they fail two to three thousand each, come on down, watch my clients gulp, like my customers from Salem OR USA that needed two new ballasts on their MickieBenZ for only 5 thousand to fix their headlights, new cars are great

Bill Bennett
7th September, 2011 @ 10:22 pm PDT

who cares the cost, if you can afford it, why not, not everything is for everyone

Nofijuidi Jumri
7th September, 2011 @ 10:51 pm PDT

Reducing the size of the light source from one millimetre to a few microns opens up radically new design possibilities, but reducing the size of the headlight itself is ruled out? I don't get it.

Steve Bennett
7th September, 2011 @ 11:21 pm PDT

I am glad that they do not plan to reduce the size of the headlight. Even the some of the modern headlights are too small. We have to remember that headlights are not just for seeing by, they perform an equally important role of making a car visible, too.

Perhaps they can polarize the light too. Make windscreens polarized at 90 degrees to that of the headlight and we have dazzle free motoring (Edwin Land)

Mel Tisdale
8th September, 2011 @ 05:45 am PDT

Be nice if they can make them point in the right direction without blinding everyone...

Matt Green
8th September, 2011 @ 07:23 am PDT

Laser headlights, huh? Just the LAST thing I wanted to hear about, especially when more and more cars are being tricked out with all sorts of blinding, blue-white headlights and fog lights that their drivers think look cool but oncoming drivers are utterly annoyed by.

PolishBear
8th September, 2011 @ 07:56 am PDT

I assume there will be three settings, one to illuminate, another to blind, and a third to vaporize. Why bother to tailgate?

CliffG
8th September, 2011 @ 10:11 am PDT

"The company says that laser light not only offers energy - and therefore fuel - savings"

How is this possible? Alternators produce as excess of electricity to charge the battery while also firing the spark plugs, running the computer, powering fans, etc. The engine does not burn more fuel due to changing loads from the alternator. Possibly this argument could be made in a hybrid or pure electric vehicle but overall it's specious.

Joseph Manske
8th September, 2011 @ 10:15 am PDT

first of all cost will be either lower or the same not more..... second i thank they where talking about the possibility of using the technology as a censor and HUD to detect and alert the driver of obstructions ahead... saving you the cost of a new car :D..... seriously though why would you think it would cost 2k per bulb, you know people buy cheap toys with lasers in them... for there cats....

Conor Raypholtz
8th September, 2011 @ 10:38 am PDT

What you would be seeing isn't the laser, but essentially a florescent bulb pumped by laser light instead of the current UV light. You could make is solid (more durable) and as 405nm laser diodes are cheep as dirt, the whole light (after engineering) would probably only cost $1 to manufacture and run on a few mW. In fact, the technology would probably be a great replacement for streetlamps and deploy-able (with the addition of a few rechargeable Li-ion AA's and a small solar cell) to places like rural Afghanistan where infrastructure is weak and extra night time lighting would make a big difference.

Charles Bosse
8th September, 2011 @ 11:18 am PDT

Stupidest. Accessory. Ever.

Clay Jones
8th September, 2011 @ 11:27 am PDT

Now if they can just keep this tech out of the hands of people who want to put the,m in their raised up pickups. And whatever happened to the gizmos on your dashboard in the sixties that automatically dimmed your headlights to oncoming traffic? Those were great, and very simple with today's tech.

dsiple
8th September, 2011 @ 12:02 pm PDT

Re; comment PolishBear - September 8, 2011 @ 07:56 am PDT

The use of the ultra-bright headlights is not to look cool, it is for the illumination. I don't use them because I hate being dazzled by them, it does not mean I have to think the other driver is vain.

Slowburn
8th September, 2011 @ 12:07 pm PDT

BMW- I expected more intelligent design from you. Get the facts first. It contributes to glare that especially aging eyes cannot handle... adding to a safety concern. The American Medical Assoc confirms it in a resolution against light pollution that was unanimously adopted in Chicago in 2009. This is horrible for the environment and will add to light pollution. The high blue spectrum is the most disruptive to the circadian and also scatters the most into the atmosphere adding to the skyglow for 50 miles and more. Again, enough is enough. It's not needed. Not only that, it could likely be litigated against. For more info see International Dark-Sky Assoc.

Audrey Fischer
8th September, 2011 @ 12:36 pm PDT

Re; Joseph Manske - September 8, 2011 @ 10:15 am PDT

The alternator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy, the less electricity being consumed the less mechanical energy that needs to be converted into electricity. The mechanical energy is provided by the engine that converts the chemical energy of the fuel into mechanical energy. Assuming a 12volt 100amp alternator running at capacity consumes 1.609226508hp without any inefficacy. There is a lot inefficacy friction in the bearings and drive pulley, and the alternators cooling fan. So while the driver will never notice saving a few milliwatts here and there, with all the cars on the road it will add up to a considerable amount of fuel not burnt every year.

Slowburn
8th September, 2011 @ 02:58 pm PDT

@Audrey Fischer - Please re-read the article to pick up all that you missed which will allay all of your concerns.

Switching topics now...

"BMW says the laser lighting would also enable the implementation of completely new functions, which will have minimal power consumption."

BATMAN symbol (or JPEG b/w or grayscale image driven) projection, anyone? :D

kalqlate
8th September, 2011 @ 03:29 pm PDT

Never am I disappointed. Some new technology is revealed, and all the torch & pichfolk waving peasants arise chanting their way forward, as they mob the scientist's castle.

No longer 18-19 century Bohemia but right down here in West Hem early 21st century!

vortexau
8th September, 2011 @ 07:35 pm PDT

Re; Audrey Fischer - September 8, 2011 @ 12:36 pm PDT

Do to the fluorescing the out put color bears no obvious relationship to the input color.

Slowburn
9th September, 2011 @ 12:08 am PDT

Slowburn: Once again, the alternator already produces an EXCESS of electricity. All of the things you mentioned (the bearings, pulley, fan) are fixed loads (relative to engine RPM) and are isolated from the current draw of the electrical components. The alternator turns at an RPM at a ratio fixed to the RPM of the engine. If the engine is spinning at 2k RPM then the alternator is going to spin at whatever the pulley ratio determines it will spin at.

But the alternator CAN'T PUT A VARIABLE LOAD ON THE ENGINE. There's nothing in an alternator's design that can add physical load to an engine other than the aforementioned bearings, pulleys, fans, etc. The Alternator either puts out an excess of power in which case the ECU and diode vary the field and dump excess power (otherwise your battery would boil over) or, when there is too little power that can't be made power the alternator draws excess power from the battery (which will run it down). But the RPM of the alternator will forever remain fixed to engine's RPM which won't increase when I flip on the dome light.

Any wattage saved by this system does not translate into fuel savings. Only if all electrical components were reduced in power to the point where a smaller alternator could be fitted would it have a direct impact on fuel economy as the physical load on the engine would be reduced.

Joseph Manske
9th September, 2011 @ 10:25 am PDT

Man...people thinking too small again. If this is that efficient and not likely all that expensive why the heck don't they make ordinary lights for houses with this technology? And you could probably save even more power if it followed people around like spotlights because you don't have to illuminate the whole room. Would be kinda cool if it spot-lighted the family-cat too as it entered the room.

This should be everywhere: streetlamps, computer monitor, TV backlights, flashlights. 170 lumens per Watt is very high. 683 lumens is perfection but current alternatives are nothing like that: compact florescents are around 60 lumens per Watt. Most LEDs are more like 70 or 80 lumens per watt. Incandescent? a pathetic 5-24 except for projection lamps that cost hundreds at 35 lumens per watt. 170; that is almost 25% efficient.

It always seems strange to me that car makers project so much time to get anything changed. If you have it, do it. One or two years is more than adequate. It is a headlight not a rocket.

The guy who thinks it only makes a difference if you can put in a smaller alternator, I suspect is wrong. The resistance to the movement of the alternator is probably a function of the charge needed.

Really, we should have flexible solar panels on the roofs of the cars. That can supply all the electricity necessary for the electrical systems in most places. No good in the arctic circle or if you have to garage your car in the day (unless there is a massive skylight) but it should work for most people. There could still be an alternator backup that can be engaged/disengaged.

The alternator accounts for about 10% of the fuel used. Saving that 10% sounds good to me. For smaller cars you would probably need the panels on the hood and other places too. Minivans or vans would have plenty of room on the roof.

With solar, a plug-in might get another mile. Not much, but if that mile is the last one to the destination needed to avoid the engine kicking in then it is probably worth it. Also, where there is no place to plug in and you are there for a few hours it might give you a few miles on the battery. Truly stranded? It might charge it up in a week or two. Or, it could run the AC intermittently enough to keep you from dieing of heat exhaustion or dehydration.

I looked into it, but I am just too poor to buy the flexible panels. These laser lights, and other efficient electrical components and engines such as diesel (no spark to generate) and smaller, easier to start, low friction, engines can help make this work with ease.

Car makers touting microscopic solar panels for charging phones or touting 40GB hard drives while terabyte ones can be had for $50 is just pathetic. These lights sound like the real deal.

Mindbreaker
9th September, 2011 @ 02:45 pm PDT

Joseph Manske, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternator "Automotive alternators invariably use a rotor winding, which allows control of the alternator's generated voltage by varying the current in the rotor field winding."

Mindbreaker
9th September, 2011 @ 02:52 pm PDT

Re; Joseph Manske - September 9, 2011 @ 10:25 am PDT

When I jump start other cars with my 79 Chevy, the engine slows when the alternator picks up the load of charging the other battery. I don't get the same effect with cars with electronic engine control, but they idle slower as well.

Slowburn
9th September, 2011 @ 04:57 pm PDT

Re: Joseph Manske

How about a thought experiment.

1. Imagine an engine idling, connected to a fully charged battery. No energy is entering the battery.

2. Now, connect that same engine at idle to a nearly discharged battery. Energy is now entering the battery.

But since "the alternator CAN'T PUT A VARIABLE LOAD ON THE ENGINE", the engine must be running at the same speed in case 2 as in case 1, and using the same amount of fuel. Therefore, either in case 2, the energy going into the battery is coming from some place other than the engine fuel, or in case 1, the energy which would have been charging the battery is being consumed by something unknown. Neither of these seems plausible.

KellyRW
13th September, 2011 @ 07:10 am PDT

As if the HID lamps aren't expensive enough...imagine what it would cost to replace a frikken Laser!

Ed
24th October, 2011 @ 04:22 pm PDT

Re: Joseph Manske The engine load audibly increases on my 99 and 96 hondas when I turn on the rear window defroster which pulls a fair amount of power.

Robin Boling
17th March, 2012 @ 08:16 pm PDT
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