Perhaps no component on a vehicle has more importance than its headlights. After all, lights are crucial to safety on the road. They ensure that you can see the road ahead, even at night or during low-light situations. And they also ensure that others see your vehicle.
Headlight technology has significantly evolved since automobiles started to appear close to the start of the 20th century. These early cars were predominantly equipped with simplistic acetylene lamps. Those headlamps overcame the challenges of carriage lamps, which powered by candlelight because they were resistant to rain and wind. The Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford introduced the first electric headlamps in 1898, but they were limited in mainstream use due to the short lifespan of the filaments incorporated in their design.
The origins of today's headlight system didn't come about until 1912 when Delco's electrical lighting and ignition system was put to use in the 1912 Cadillac. A half-century and several technological leaps later (including electromagnetically shifted reflectors and steering-linked lighting), we arrived at the halogen lamp in 1962. They were first used only in Europe but became street-legal in the U.S. beginning in 1978.
Now, other technologies are supplanting the long-used halogen light, including LEDs. They may be appearing on more vehicles, and ones costing close to $20,000. But are LEDs superior to halogen headlights? In some ways, yes.
An LED light is bright, white light. By appearance, even daylight isn't as white. Does that matter? From the perspective of light return, yes. LEDs make it easier to see the shoulder and markings on the road and the signs on the road since they produce a brighter light than traditional halogen lamps.
LED headlights cast a large light pattern on the roadway, so it's easier for you to get a more ample look at where you're going and what's in your surroundings. Halogen headlights, by contrast, direct a small pool of yellow-hued light that hits right in front of your vehicle.
The most significant advantage that LED lights has to offer the average driver is a considerable improvement of nighttime vision. When compared to halogen lights, the difference can be noticeable enough to make nighttime driving more comfortable.
Coverage and brightness are two selling points of LED lights. If an animal is in the road around a curve, LED light tends to broadcast across a broader spectrum than halogen. That potentially gives more reaction time behind the wheel to deal with just such an occurrence and steer or brake accordingly.
LEDs are also powerful. The bulbs provide full brightness with no warm-up wait required and no flickering to go straight from low beam to high beam. And it achieves this without requiring a lot of power, decreasing the burden put on electrical systems. That is becoming increasingly important as new vehicles add powerful radars and cameras.
The cost of headlights doesn't just come up in the price you'll pay at the dealer for the vehicle. If a replacement is ever needed because the LEDs are damaged or burned out over time, plan on spending more than you would for a halogen replacement. Much more, in fact.
Replacement costs vary widely by the car's make and model (and the shop doing the replacement). For example, a BMW headlight assembly minus the bulb runs around $985 for a BMW, and that's before labor is factored in. It isn't unusual to see a repair bill for LED headlights run over $2,000. Some LED headlamps also have sophisticated sensors and leveling devices than standard halogen lights, adding to the cost. Consider that if your vehicle doesn't pass a state inspection one time, or if it's in a parking lot crash at one point.
Why Do Manufacturers Love LEDs?
Never mind the fact that LEDs are popular in the auto industry right now. Manufacturers looking to achieve sleeker-looking, modish profiles on their models love the fact that LED lights can be small and unobtrusive. Audi, BMW, Toyota. All have come out with cars using high-quality LED headlight systems. From a design standpoint, this small size allows for more design flexibility. Automakers can create a bevy of assemblies and shapes to go well with the cars they turn out. And they virtually eliminate the less-elegant dome reflectors that are associated with halogen lamps.
But there are some drawbacks. Although LED lamps do not put out as much heat as halogen lamps, they do generate heat from their emission base, particularly in the region of the chip in the emitter. So when electricity comes through, there is some possibility of problems with connection cables and assembles, so LED lamps require their own cooling systems to prevent them from melting. For this reason, fans or heat sinks are usually part of the LED lamp setup, which is a bit of added cost for automakers. And because the cooling systems used for LED lights are situated in the hot engine bay, designing and implementing LEDs into a car is no small feat. That's why automakers pass these additional costs on to the buyer and often make LEDs an upgrade or available with particular trim packages only.
If you're just interested in having LED taillamps or running lights added to your vehicle, you're in luck. These don't require heat sinks. These lights are not relied upon for nighttime illumination, so they don't need to have as much power as headlamps. Therefore, they don't experience the level of current running through their chips that pose a heat problem on headlights.
Why Halogen Headlights Still Rule the Roads
Most vehicles on the road today still have halogen bulbs in their headlights. The way they work is simple; an electrical charge hits a tungsten filament inside a heat-resistant envelope surrounded by nitrogen and argon gases. This ignition causes a glow of incandescent light from the bulb. Halogens have been around for a long time, and it's easy to see why. They are cheap, they are easy to replace, and they are pretty much universal. You can go to nearly any auto parts store and pick up a new one or order it, and they are reasonably simple to change. If you usually perform minor repairs on your vehicle, changing a halogen bulb takes just a few minutes. However, they're only rated for an average of 800 hours of use, and their extra sensitive and not so durable. They are also energy-intense, which is one reason they're not the eco-friendliest or greenest option.
What About Xenon?
When discussing LED headlights, it's important not to confuse them with Xenon headlights, which are a different, yet similar, animal altogether.
Xenon lights are also called HID (high-intensity discharge) headlights. HID lights are the brightest and whitest of all headlights on the market, providing broad illumination of the roadway ahead. HIDs are expensive, so they are geared more toward drivers who are generally out after dark frequently.
One thing that separates LED, halogen and Xenon or HID lights from one another is their color temperature. LEDs are the coolest, coming in at approximately 6,000 Kelvin, giving them their bright whiteness. Xenon bulbs are around 4,500 Kelvin, and halogens are generally in the 3,200 Kelvin range. Xenon options produce more light than LEDs and halogen lights; however, HID bulbs often have more glare than LEDs, although they provide intense light. LEDs tend to cost more than the other two options, but they offer fabulously clear light with long lamp life and low power needs.
Not ready to trade your old car or truck in for a fancy new upgrade that is equipped with halogen headlights? No big. The aftermarket wizards are proud to make your acquaintance so that you can one-up your driving experience without taking the plunge and buying a new car. Conversion kits for LED headlamps can be a smart addition to your vehicle that makes for safer driving and added efficiency. Be aware, though, that not all states allow for aftermarket headlight conversions, so check first before you invest in a lighting upgrade.
A knowledgeable mechanic should review your owner's manual to ensure that the fitment from the conversion kit will work with your vehicle's electrical system. And even then, a specialist is required to fit them, due to the added heat that the lights put out. It is not a job for even the most avid DIY-ers, no matter how enthusiastic. If the LED conversion kit is improperly installed or of poor quality, the result can also be dangerous for you and others on the road.
Also, consult various rules for vehicle inspections in your state. That may avoid surprises when an inspector fails your vehicle because the lights do not meet the standards depending on where you live. Again, not all aftermarket solutions are created equally, so consult the manufacturer and a professional installer before adding them to your vehicle.
Which Should You Choose?
The best way to determine if LED lights are worth the upgrade may be to assess your particular driving needs. Are you often out driving at night, or are you generally home before the sun goes down? Do you spend a lot of time driving in low-light or rainy conditions? If you don't drive a lot and seldom drive at night, then the added cost of a trim package that includes LED lights may not be worth it.
Like all options and accessories, do some research and see if the option is worth the price. For buyers of pre-owned luxury cars where the technology is standard, consider asking how much the part will cost should it fail when the vehicle is out of warranty. That may save some surprises down the road.