The Evolution of Headlights from LAMPS to LASERS

new bmw laser headlights

Modern headlights are bonkers, even the lamps on cheap econo-boxes can light up the whole world. And some of the new luxury cars straight up shoot lasers, like sharks, or something like that. But have you ever thought about how we got here?

Today, we want to talk about something you probably take for granted, your headlights. 

Carbide Lamps

carbide headlight

You know, there’s something special about driving at night. It’s just you, the road, and the dark abyss, and all you have are two lights to keep you on your path. But what if you had to get out of your car and light your headlights with a lighter before you could drive? Crazy! That’s how the first car headlamps worked.

When cars first came out, they were just fancy carriages, and horse-drawn carriages definitely don’t have electricity. So, how did they see in the dark? With fire! The first cars had bottles of acetylene, yeah, that’s the stuff you cut metal with. You opened a valve to let the acetylene out and lit it with a match.

Boom, fire equals light. Just watch out for water. Oh, and just in case you were wondering, they’re called “carbide lamps”, because acetylene comes from calcium carbide. Use that next time you want to impress the science nerd in your car group.

If you’ve ever tried to walk around at night using only a lighter, though, you know it’s not really doable. And cars go way faster than you can walk, so it’s hard to imagine trying to drive with nothing but a little fireball to keep you on the blacktop.

Fortunately, by the early 1900s, people were putting batteries in cars. Batteries can power lightbulbs, which is great, because you can just flip a switch from inside the car instead of having to get out and light your lights. 

Electric Lamps

1923 ford model t
Mecum Auctions

The first electric headlights actually came out in 1898, and they came on a Tesla. Well, not really, but Cadillac was making electric vehicles in the late 1800s, and they were the first cars with lightbulbs.

Now, these early light bulbs were pretty dim. They were like 5-watt incandescent bulbs, meaning your cell phone flashlight is like 10 times as bright. What made those early lights work was the housing. See, gas lamps and early headlights used mirrors and lenses to focus the light, making sure that all the available light was pointed towards the road, and not just scattered around like a candle on a table.

In fact, the first fancy projector headlights, like you put on your Civic and never adjusted right, were actually made to best utilize the light from these weak light sources. The problem was that everybody made their own design back then. Your electric Morris had totally different headlight housings than the Ford Model T. And you thought part exclusivity was bad with Porsche today?

Imagine that there’s just one guy in Iowa that blows the custom glass for your headlight. That’s dumb as hell. So, in 1939, the automotive manufacturers all agreed to use the same headlight. In the USA, it actually became the law every car sold would use two 7-inch round sealed beam headlights.

Glass Sealed Beam

1950s cars headlights

The sealed beam headlight is one or two lightbulbs, a reflective housing, and a glass lens all in one. You can’t take them apart. If the bulb fails, you’ve got to replace the whole thing. Have you ever wondered why headlights in cars from the 1950s all look identical? It’s because they were! 

There were just a few changes over time. In 1960, you could use four smaller round headlights instead of two bigger ones, and in 1975, you could use square headlights. Hurray! In the USA, headlight technology never really changed. The biggest advancement was nearly 40 years after the law passed, and it was just the addition of single lights that had high and low beams.

In places that are not the mighty United States, they were innovating headlights. Lots of European cars actually had their better headlights changed to sealed beams so they could be sold in the USA, all because the United States government was so stuck on their old ideas, which is still happening, but more on that later.

In 1983, the government finally got a clue, and in 1984, Ford took a major step with the Lincoln Mark VII, and gave the USA headlights that had interchangeable bulbs. It was such a big deal that they even marketed it as a special feature. It didn’t’ take long for everyone to jump on board.

Composite Headlamps

composite headlights

We’re up to the 1990s, and most headlights have ditched the sealed beam style, and adopted the composite, replaceable bulb style instead. There were some hold-outs, like the Miata that used sealed beams right up until the NB came out. But, for the most part, everyone was onboard the composite headlight train, which is good, because headlight technology had stayed the same for nearly 90 years.

The ability to replace just the bulb made it easy to upgrade your headlights, and innovators went wild. One of the best parts about composite headlights is that they could be any shape, since there wasn’t any regulation that said they must be a 7-inch circle.

Companies were free to make them whatever they wanted. The molded, aerodynamic look is what gives cars like the 300ZX and the Supra their style. Then people thought, hey, what if we want to go brighter? And after just 7 years, we advanced to HID headlights.


1991 bmw 7 series

In 1991, the BMW 7 Series had a new, better style of headlight. Since they could upgrade the bulb and didn’t have to invent a whole new housing, they were able to play around with the technology a little, and swap the halogen bulb for a xenon bulb.

There are a few differences between xenon and halogen bulbs. For one thing, a halogen bulb is filled with halogen, but a xenon bulb is filled with, you guessed it, xenon. They also light up differently. A halogen bulb is like your traditional old light bulb, whereas xenon bulbs look more like a plasma cutter inside, and they’re way brighter, hence the name “High Intensity Discharge”, or HID.

HIDs remained sort of a novelty, though, something found on luxury cars or custom cars, just because they were a bit more expensive. By 1996, Ford was putting xenon headlights in their Lincolns, and in the early 2000s, a lot of sports cars had them. But just as they were about to make their way into normal cars, Audi would swoop in and kick HID lights to the curb. 


audi r8 led headlights

You know what LEDs are. Your computer probably has a million of them. LEDs, or “Light Emitting Diodes”, are brighter, take less power, and are way more customizable. That’s why when Audi really wanted to make a statement with their new R8, they gave it LED headlights, which ends our little tour of the past, because LEDs are pretty much the norm now.

If you buy a new car, chances are you are going to get LEDs. Even the humble Corolla comes standard with LEDs. LEDs are awesome. They last forever, and their small size makes them easy to adapt, especially with the specialty stuff like off-road lights. It may look awesome to have a row of KCs on your PreRunner, but an LED light bar can produce more light and you won’t have to run a second alternator.

Matrix LEDs are the newest, nicest type of LED headlights. A matrix LED is a special type of LED that can dodge bullets. No, just kidding, it’s a grid of LEDs that are controlled by a computer. The computer can shut off different LEDs on the grid and do some really cool stuff, like have the headlights gradually get brighter as they go towards the shoulder of the road, so you get maximum deer spotting abilities and you don’t blind oncoming traffic

What about the future? LED lights are all the rage right now, but is there anything on the horizon? Well, yeah, actually, and it sounds like something straight from Star Wars. They’re called “laser headlights”. You heard me right. 


bmw laser headlights
BMW Blog

Laser lights are one of the newest technologies out there, and they’re brighter and last longer than LEDs. How much brighter? Well, let’s say a halogen bulb can let you see 100 feet ahead of you at night. Xenon and LED can get you between 200 and 300 feet, and a standard LED matrix is good for like 400 feet. BMW’s new laser headlights on the M8 have to be limited to 600 feet. 

The lens isn’t perfectly clear, it has to be cloudy because the lights would blind people otherwise. Now, at this time, the better LED matrix lights are right up there in brightness, there are even some Audi LEDs that outperfrom the BMW lasers, but laser headlights are brand new and will only get better.

LEDS are likely to lose this fight. You probably think of lasers like the toys you use to play with cats, or cutting tools, or sci-fi weapons. The headlights really do use that same technology, but not as firing weapons out the front of your car.

Side note: how cool would that be? Some loser cuts you off and you just zap him and your problem’s solved. 

What happens is that three small lasers focus onto a special phosphorus-covered lens, and that produces a ton of light. The problem is that more light isn’t necessarily more better. You don’t want to be blinding other drivers on the road, and there’s really no reason to see 600 feet ahead of you in a city with streetlights.

To get around that, laser headlights are also really advanced matrix headlights. They can change brightness and direction based on the conditions. In fact, on the cars coming with laser headlights now, the lasers only come on after a certain speed, like automatic high-beams. And that’s actually a problem. 

See, we’re back to the US government and their reluctance to change. Right now, a car in the USA must have high-beam headlights and low-beam headlights. So, these laser headlights, that are both at the same time, are illegal. That’s stupid. 

Companies like Audi and BMW are kind of cheating the system. They have two modes installed on the lights. They don’t really do anything, but it meets the standards of the law. Fine. Whatever it takes to get them on my car, because these things are amazing.

Laser headlights are more than just bright and adaptable, they can project shapes and colors too. Imagine going down the road and your car just lights up someone on the side of the road so you can see them better, or it shines a big red light for you to see when there’s something in the road that you might hit, and it does that way before your eyes can see it.

This stuff isn’t just speculation either, it’s being tested, and we may even get that tech on the BMW M8 Competition and the Mercedes-Benz GLS next year! Nice!

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