It is hard to imagine that any component on your car, SUV, truck, or van has more importance than its headlights, and this fact often leads to spirited LED vs halogen headlight discussions among car owners. And in this battle of the bulbs, the best headlight boils down to your particular needs while you drive and how often you drive in low-light conditions and after dark. Both halogen and LED lights have their perks and pitfalls. Let us review the good, the bad, and the
ugly in the halogen/LED showdown that follows.
Old School vs. New School Lighting
Headlights are crucial to safety on the road. They ensure that you can see the road ahead, even at night or during low-light situations. They also ensure that your vehicle is seen by others on the roadway. Today's driver has many choices when it comes to headlights — including two of the most popular options — halogen, the "old school" headlamps that have been popular for decades, and LED (light-emitting diode) varieties, which are starting to become more and more mainstream.
Headlight technology has definitely evolved since the late 19th century, when basically every vehicle of the scarce number on the roadway was equipped with simplistic acetylene lamps. These headlamps overcame the challenges of carriage lamps — fueled by candles — because they were resistant to rain and wind. The Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford introduced the first electric headlamps way back in 1898, but they were limited in mainstream use due to the short lifespan of the filaments incorporated in their design.
The true origins of today's headlight system did not come about until 1912 when Delco's electrical lighting and ignition system was put to use in the 1912 Cadillac. Flash forward a half century and several technology leaps later (including electromagnetically shifted reflectors and steering-linked lighting) and we arrive at the good 'ole halogen lamp in 1962, first used only in Europe but street-legal in the US beginning in 1978.
If you are reading this article, chances are good that most of the vehicles you have ever owned were equipped with standard halogen lights. And these lights are still the most common on today's roads. Nonetheless, the brighter, whiter appeal of the LED headlight is starting to dim the popularity of halogen, and more and more drivers are seeking out vehicles that are equipped with LED headlamps or opting for after-market products to make the switch.
But what is all the hype? Are LEDs superior to halogen headlights?
Pure, Bright Light
LED light is bright, white light. By appearance, even daylight is not 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 is 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 biggest advantage that LED lights have to offer the average driver is a significant improvement of nighttime vision. When compared to your old halogen lights, you might even say the difference is impeccable. Some drivers do say exactly that. If you have trouble seeing at night, these lights may be just what you need to regain your nighttime driving abilities.
Coverage and brightness are two selling points of LED lights. If an animal is in the road around a winding curve, LED lights tend to broadcast a wider light than halogen, potentially giving you more reaction time behind the wheel so you can steer or brake accordingly.
LEDs are also powerful. LED 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. Misty, foggy and dark routes are clearer, and navigation easier.
They are also easier on your motor because they use less energy and less power; they do not drain power from the motor that might be needed for other assemblies within the engine. Essentially, they help your engine stay "healthy" because they do not require much of its overall available power. For that matter, you might see a small (very, very) reduction in fuel consumption on vehicles equipped with LED headlights.
The cost of headlights does not just factor into the sticker price you will pay at the dealer. If a replacement is ever needed because the LEDs are damaged or burn out over time, plan on spending more than you would for a halogen replacement. Much more. 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 is not unusual to see a repair bill for LED headlights run over two grand, which isn't chump change by any stretch of the imagination.
Why Do Manufacturers Love LEDs?
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 have come out with cars using high-quality LED headlight systems. From a design standpoint, this small size allows for amazing manipulation. Automakers can create a bevy of assemblies and shapes to go well with the cars they turn out. And they essentially eliminate those not-so-pretty dome reflectors that are associated with halogen headlight bulbs.
All that beauty and grace is not without at least one drawback for the manufacturer, however. Although LED lamps do not put out the heat that you experience with halogen light bulbs, 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 bay of the engine (which is already experiences higher temperatures), designing and implementing LEDs into a car is no small feat. Don't worry, though. Automakers pass all these additional costs on to the buyer, which is why LEDs are generally an upgrade or available with particular trim packages only.
If you are just interested in having LED taillamps or running lights added to your vehicle, you're in luck. These do not require heat sinks. These lights are not relied upon for nighttime navigation, so they do not need to have as much power as headlamps; ergo, they do not experience the level of current running through their chips that pose a heat problem on headlamps.
Why Halogen Headlights Still Rule the Roads
Most vehicles on the road today still have halogen bulbs, a type of incandescent bulb, 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. Halogen gas bulbs have been around for a long time, and it is easy to see why. They are cheap, easy to replace, and pretty much universal. You can go to nearly any auto parts store and pick up a new one or order it, and they are fairly simple to change. In fact, if you are one who performs minor repairs and fixes on your own vehicle, then you can just pop open the headlight, remove the old headlight bulbs, and just stick in the new, all of which takes just a few minutes. However, they are 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 are not the eco-friendliest or most energy efficient option.
What About Xenon Bulbs?
When discussing LED headlights, it is important not to confuse them with Xenon headlights, which are a different, yet similar, type of light.
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 really are geared more toward drivers who are out after dark frequently. If you only run out after dark if you forgot the milk at the store, then you probably do not need the added cost (both when buying a new car and when replacing an HID headlight) added onto your tab.
One thing that separates LED, halogen, and Xenon/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 gas 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 OEM halogen headlights? No big deal. 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 car 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.
If you do go the conversion route, 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. Nonetheless, a specialist is required to fit them, due to the added heat that the lights put out. This is not a job for even the most avid DIYers or shade-tree mechanic, no matter how enthusiastic. If the LED conversion kit is ill-fitted or improperly installed (or if you go the El Cheapo route and choose a low-cost option from eBay), the installation can even be dangerous for you and others on the road.
What Do the Experts Say?
Still on the fence about halogen vs. LED headlamps? The experts at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) note that in the organization's tests, LEDs are usually the top performers, but it also confesses that some of the halogen varieties tested outperformed some of the poorest-performing LEDs. Still, the overall best ratings went to LED bulbs that illuminated the side of the road by a minimum of 325 feet for the best bulbs and 220 feet for the lowest-ranking bulbs.
Which Type of Headlight Should You Choose?
When determining if LED car headlights are a definite must for your next vehicle upgrade, perhaps the best way to approach the question of whether you should just stick with halogen or go for LED headlights depends on your particular driving needs. Are you often out driving at night, or are you generally home and snoozing before the sun goes down? Do you spend a lot of time driving, sometimes in low-light or rainy conditions? If you do not 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. However, if you are the type of driver who drives a lot or who travels quite frequently, particularly after 6pm, then opting for a car with high quality headlights may end up being a smart move for you.