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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

BMW's Laser Headlights, The Future for Night Driving

BMW Laser Headlamps

We live in an age of high technology and with high technology comes many improvements and demands.. With the need for better operation advantages of everything from your cellphone's back lighting to better night driving visibilities, laser is quickly becoming a front-runner in the eyes of engineers worldwide.

BMW is moving ahead with technology to produce the most efficient, emulation of natural sunlight for their automobile's headlights.  The most powerful car headlight, to date, is a blue laser diode that is 1000 times brighter than an LED and only uses two-thirds the energy.

BMW's research center, located in Munich, Germany, is an enormous complex to say the least.  The FIZ consists of workshops, modelers and one colossus wind tunnel.  Within this complex, project founder Volker Levering displays three of BMW's brightest lights along with Stefan Weber, current program leader and Helmut Erdl, the technology's inventors.

Weber stated that most people may not be aware of good lighting vs bad lighting but will immediately recognize the difference when excellent lighting is put in front of them.  Before an audience of viewers, Weber turns on fluorescent panels that remarkably simulate a sunny day above ground.  Professional photographers consider 6500 kelvin as "natural light", which is the range these panels will reach.

Blue-laser Lighting:

BMW Laser Headlamp Demonstration 
A tiny diode proceeds through phosphor, then converts some of this blue-laser light into a wavelength that is in the yellow spectrum.  This mixture creates a white beam, that can be centralized very securely, into an elliptical image even though it is not a laser.

Engineers want more than just intensified lighting, focusing instead on a higher contrast of white light that can mimic sunlight.  BMW's light system can deliver approximately 5500 to 6000 K which is the highest color temperature that international regulations  will allow.  This level will allow drivers the ability to see objects much more clearly and is much easier on eyes, eliminating fatigue.

Before semiconductor lighting, the brightest whites headlights could muster was a high intensity discharge (HID) lamps.  These lamps were first introduced by BMW in 1991 and are still an upgrade option on most 2014 vehicles.  Unfortunately, this lighting is still weaker and less energy efficient than LED or laser lights.

Laser Lighting Technology:

Since Thomas Edison's 1879 incandescent bulb invention, the bulb has remained  King in everything, including automobiles, houses and offices to name a few.  The first LED headlights appeared six years ago in the Lexus LS 600h L sedan.  Now it  seems laser will be the next, best in lighting effects.  Laser light will be introduced throughout Europe in the 2014 BMW i8, which is a plug-in hybrid sports car.

Shuji Nakamura, inventor of both the blue-laser and blue LED, believes the day of the LED headlight might be coming to an end before it ever really got off the ground.  His Silicon Valley company, Soraa, is in the process of developing a laser system that will enhance LED's lighting technologies and provide and provide a new way of lighting needs in the future.

Nakamura believes "laser" will be the next generation in lighting, including everything from applications to homes and businesses.  He also believes that BMW's engineers are leading the way with their night driving simulator.  This simulator consists of a cutaway 5 Series sedan interior with an instrument panel, seats and steering wheel that face a darkened screen.  This is to test and demonstrate a driver's visual abilities while driving at night, using laser.

Erdl demonstrated the power of two laser prototypes dangling a stick of barely visible beams that explode into a light, filling the entire lab.  This laser light is safely contained, not allowing any ill effect to viewing retinas.  This is due to the fact that BMW's lamps turn the intense blue beam into a very concentrated, non-laser cone of safe white light that is eye friendly.

How This Will Work:

The accumulation of 4 blue-laser diodes will direct the beams onto a phosphorus plate, then convert the laser into white light that will bounce off secondary optics, reflecting onto the road.

Erdle demonstrated how this works with a phosphorus wafer dipped into a blue-laser beam.  The wafer blocks some laser photons while allowing others to stream through.  Some of the blocked photons will stimulate the phosphorus atoms, emitting yellow light.  The combination of blue light shinning through yellow, forms a brilliant white light.  Although this is the basic technology used for white-light LEDs, Nakamura believes, along with other experts, that lasers are much better and a great deal more efficient at directing light onto a distant area.

Paul Rudy, general manager of the laser division at Soraa, said "It's simply the best way to direct light through a complex optical system."

Taking just 10 square micrometers, a laser's active light area is a mere 1/10000th vs LED's 1 square millimeter.  Therefore, laser can focus and direct lighting exactly where it is needed.  This tiny chip offers a higher density, producing dazzling light without the multiple, bulkiness of LEDs.

The laser chip's movements are adaptable for large motions of beams.  LEDs tend to fan out and become difficult to target.  Rudy believes laser is a combination of high brightness with the reliability, long life and efficiency of LEDs.  This could also mean, these lights may easily outlive the life of the vehicle they are installed on.

Laser vs LED:

Although, at this time, LEDs are a great deal more efficient at turning electricity into light, laser's efficiency is rapidly catching up.  That said, LEDs are not good at focusing light where it needs to be because it causes a fanning effect.   Laser, on the other hand, produces a precise focus point due to its pin point ability.   Laser will only lose 10 to 20 percent of its energy where LED loses almost 90%  LED headlights draw approximately 40 watts from a car's battery, where laser draws only 30 watts.

Future Technology:

Thanks to Nakamura's invention of the first blue lasers which hit the market in 2005, lower power versions are driving Blu-ray players and Play Stations world-wide.  There are also higher powered versions that are being used in industrial welding.  With engineers increasing the power output with shorter wavelength indium gallium nitride chips, this development in technology is ready and able to take on new futuristic applications.

Blue lasers are already being used in many other applications you might not be aware of.  Pumping stronger blue lasers into phosphor in order to create brilliant light has resulted in a lamp-free display which is being used in offices, schools and home theatre projectors.

As the industry matures laser is on a high upward curve while the costs are dropping rapidly, giving laser an edge on favorability.  As BMW's blue-laser diodes are approximately only one-tenth the length of LEDs, they can be placed anywhere within a vehicle while transmitting the output light through fiber optics.  This will dramatically change the creation and designs of headlights.

As the technology continues to explode, expect to see uses in cell phones displays, head-mounted systems, such as Google Glass.  Laser could very well become tomorrow's way of lighting homes, offices, stadiums and everything else that needs light.

Due to it's compact size and efficiency over LEDs, dollar-wise laser is much more flexible.  It is not considered a giant leap that within 10 years laser will be used in just about any general purposes.

Lasers switch on within milliseconds, instantly growing to 100% illumination.  They are easy to package, they are space saving and extremely flexible for endless other needs.

BMW and The Future of Lighting:

BMW and other luxury vehicle manufacturers are introducing headlights that will direct a "cone of darkness" toward oncoming vehicles, allowing the driver to use high beams without blinding the oncoming drivers.

Vehicles of the future will adapt to road environments with hundreds of lighting programs being envisioned right now.  Laser will coincide  very nicely with these new developments and enhancing our lives for years to come.

BMW will continue to downsize their system and secure durability outside of their lab.  The cooling system is a challenge, directing airflow over the lamps is one option, by using fans or conductive materials.  BMW will be visiting Death Valley, CA and other locations to run extreme testing.

The future of lighting to improve our experiences with new applications, lessen eye strain and improve our driving abilities is not that far off.  Technology is forever on the edge of new and inventive ideas.


  1. Its amazing on how far we have come in technology and auto lighting. I am not surprised that BMW is the leader in innovation and making huge strides to change the way we see at night with laser auto lighting. I guess running to the auto parts store to pick up some replacement bulbs just got a whole lot more complicated. Then again, if your driving a BMW you probably don't change your own auto lamps anyway.

  2. On one hand I'm always surprised to think of where technology has taken something as simple as the headlight or auto lighting in general, then I remember the league the likes of BMW are playing in and suddenly it doesn't surprise me. These new laser headlights will be a massive improvement and not only that, they'll look gorgeous while doing it.

  3. I may never be likely to own one of these beauties, but I'm a BMW fan and if I did own one, I'd be heavily into custom autoparts. These laser headlights look impressive and give such a sleek look, seriously love it. I think I need to rob a bank!