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The Headlight of the Future Is a Laser (bloomberg.com)
62 points by adventured 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments

I've seen a few off-road-capable vehicles lately with something that looks like the bumper-mounted light bar shown in the pictures here. I don't know if it's this same product, but I can say with confidence that it is blindingly bright to oncoming drivers, unlike the claims made in this article. I sit very high in my vehicle and have been painfully dazzled by these every time I encounter them.

But this strikes me as a very lazy piece anyway. There's no skepticism about the claims, or the reasons why the US might have its current headlight standards. It's basically a PR piece for this product.

The opening line clued me in to how bad it was going to be, though: "Most people don’t turn on their car’s headlights and think, I wish they were brighter." Sure I do! But on the other hand, I also don't want to blind the cars I'm about to pass within six feet of that are coming towards me at an effective 140mph when I'm driving on a dark back country road after dark, which I do hundreds of miles of every week. That's why we have dimmable headlights in the first place.

You are thinking about the Ebay Chinese LED light bars that people put on their "off-road" vehicles. The problem isn't with the brightness it is with how they are aimed. If you turn on stock HID headlights and point them at a wall you will notice the bright bit is a region of the wall from the ground to about a meter up. Then there is not very bright light diffusely showing higher that is used to illuminate road signs.

High beam lights and aftermarket lights are not aimed like this and thus shine into your passenger compartment. Properly aimed lights never point in. An issue in the USA is that unlike Europe we have no requirement to autolevel lights even when cresting a hill. So you notice that when someone comes up over a hill you get flashed with light. That might be an issue with these.

>High beam lights and aftermarket lights are not aimed like this and thus shine into your passenger compartment. Properly aimed lights never point in.

By that definition, properly aimed lights haven't been invented yet. I have headlights like that, where you see brightness end at a horizontal line. Going over the crest of a hill angles the beams in a way that goes into cars.

Actually my family has two cars. I get a lot more people blinking their brights at me in the one with that kind of headlight, presumably because they think my brights are on when they aren't.

The article describes automated systems to turn the laser version away from detected cars ahead, so it will just blind cyclists and pedestrians.

The cresting over a hill issue is mitigated/solved by this:


As I said in the parent post it is already required on all new cars in Europe as of now.

If you read the whole article I'm very surprised you think these are the same run of the mill LED lightbars every off-roader and their mother has had for a while now.

> reasons why the US might have its current headlight standards.

I'm not sure why the US maintains a separate vehicle lighting standard versus most of the rest of the world. Their standard allows for more glare from low beams, less usable light on the road, and a less focused hotspot for high beams.

For example, when driving overseas in Dubai in a rented Toyota Yaris, I didn't even need to use the prismatic rear-view mirror's night setting when driving at night because of the far better UNECE glare control standard. In the US, I drive a Honda Odyssey and sit a bit higher up compared to the Yaris and I frequently have problems with glare from traffic ahead and behind me and always have to use the night-setting on the rear-view mirror.

Those light bars are usually producing a ridiculous amount of light, though. All else being equal, the way to reduce glare to oncoming drivers is to increase the area of the emitter. It's not really HIDs that have made glare a problem in modern cars, it's everybody switching to projectors. Even halogens are terrible for glare when used in a projector.

Why do you say that? Good projectors have very little glare because they actually focus a beam in the right direction. Of course they are bright if shining straight at you but that is not glare. That's just over illumination.

Here in California, the worst glare comes from people who have put high intensity bulbs into non-projector housings, people with oxidized/hazy lenses on older cars, and people who misuse fog and other auxilliary lights. The common factor is the ominidirectional emissions which are far outside the regulated light pattern.

What matters for oncoming traffic is the intensity of the light per area emitted. A projector emits all of the light from half of a 1.8 inch (typical) lens, versus a reflector light which may emit from an area 10x that. A well adjusted reflector and a well adjusted projector will both point predominantly down, but both deliberately put some light above the line, of course. And both will occasionally be pointed directly at oncoming traffic due to elevation changes of the road. The projector is much more intense and produces far more glare when you look at it. Doubly so with HID, of course.

I've seen several newer Acuras and BMWs switch from single projector to multiple, which helps, though you'd really need quite a few more to lower the glare back to a what a big reflector light produces. I kinda wonder sometimes what it would be like if we were able to emit across the entire frontal area of the car -- it might be possible to emit significantly more than current HID setups while having less glare than ever.

I guess we are bothered by different things. I don't mind that the projector lights are bright when they are actually shining straight at me, because that is usually brief and predictable so I can avert my gaze momentarily. It's the off-axis glare that continues to bother me when the car is not pointing directly at me.

In my opinion, many new cars are very comfortable with sharp cutoffs on their lights and almost no off-axis glare. They may be blinding if you're about to be run over, but from the next lane over or at normal windshield height, they are quite tame. But others are terrible and most seem to fall into the categories I mentioned above: obvious aftermarket disasters with bright bulbs mismatched to the optics, older cars with hazy lenses, and people using fog lights (or high beams) in totally inappropriate conditions, throwing light everywhere with poor cutoffs.

I'm actually starting to wonder how much of the problem is an aging population trying to compensate for their failing eyesight by blinding us with high beams and fog lights.

The problem is that everyone installs aftermarket headlights without bothering to adjust where they're pointed, so the lights are pointed directly in your face instead of down at the road.

Yeah, the vast majority of people don't do actual retrofits, they just get some cheapo ballasts and HID bulbs and shove them in the existing projectors/reflectors. Since the HID arc is oriented and shaped completely differently from the halogen filament, it usually results in some terrible hotspots above the cutoff. And the quality of the light is frequently worse than just leaving the stock bulbs in.

Even some of the dedicated retrofit enthusiasts go a little too far IMO. The pursuit of the almighty sharp cutoff line results in an on/off style of lighting. Go down a dip in the road with zero light above the cutoff and suddenly your line of sight is 20 feet.

You're talking about an extremely bright flood beam with zero attempt whatsoever to avoid blinding oncoming drivers, which is the exact opposite of what's being described here.

The US regulations are bloody terrible. If you want to see cool high-tech lighting, go to Europe.

Do youtube searches for "Audi Matrix headlights", Mercedes Multibeam, etc.

Great, so lasers are very directional and allow you to illuminate the exact area that you are interested in. What I don't agree with is that you can always exclude the eyes of the other drivers from that area.

Roads are uneven, you have curves and bumps and ramps. Unless there is an inteligent system actively tracking incoming vehicles and avoiding them, there is always a chance that you will hit someone with the full force of 10x brighter lasers. I know of no such inteligent headlight system, that needs to have close to 100% demonstrated success rate. Blinding the driver of a single bike or tractor is enough to produce a major accident.

The way the headlight arms race is going, I believe there is an opportunity for defensive technology to be invented: a liquid crystal layer in your windshield that, coupled with a camera that tracks your eyes location, is able to reduce the transparency of a very small spot in your field of view that covers the incoming vehicle. Seems like it could be implemented with 80s tech.

Reading the article and looking at SLD Laser's website leads you to believe that they are shooting lasers out the front of the emitter. They also both implicate the BMW 5 series. BMW demoed a laser headlight system to Jalopnik and it doesn't work that way at all.

The lasers are fired into a phosphorous element to excite it into emitting light which is then reflected down field. The advantages of this over LED and other tech is that it uses less power and produces less heat.


I assume you know this, but most big leds used in headlights already have phosphorous elements. For example, https://www.amazon.com/Chanzon-6000K-6500K-Intensity-Compone... is a 100W LED, the yellow is the phosphorous with the LEDs embedded within.

> Unless there is an intelligent system actively tracking oncoming vehicles

VW has the tech available since 2017: https://www.volkswagen-newsroom.com/en/dynamic-light-assist-...

YT videos showing it on the road: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=vw+dynamic+ligh...

My Toyota has automatic highbeams which use the forward camera (which is primarily used for collision avoidance) to theoretically switch off the brights. In practice it doesn't seem to sense oncoming vehicles soon enough (even with my brights off the LED headlights provoke a lot of people to flash their brights at me, until I flash back and leave them sunburnt).

Lasers are amazingly versatile! They can do everything from vaporizing a bulldozer from 2000 feet away to delicate surgery on eyes, as long as the doctor remembers to change the setting from "Bulldozer" to "Delicate". (Dave Barry)

Anecdotally, I was at a recent dental tech expo in Sydney and was allowed a chance to play with one of the dental lasers on display.

The guy running the stand showed us how to peel the shell away from the membrane of an uncooked egg, before then winding the dial right up and letting me saw a lamb jaw bone in half with it.

They really are pretty impressive devices.

A decade or more I had a dentist that stayed towards the front of the technology curve, and he had an argon laser that he used for some fillings. My memory is that they were small fillings and he did it without pain killers, there was no whine from the drill, etc. I think he needed to "rough up" the hole that the laser made, which was done with the drill thing at low speed.

I really liked him, but there was a combination of his location being inconvenient, and one of his dental techs was terrible, so I switched.

Because LED headlights aren’t blinding enough?

I know people who have had their headlights "tuned" to have them raised higher. Purpose was to "blind"/"warn" traffic on the German Autobahn when they wanted to clear the lane for themselves and the car to look more aggressive.

Works as easy as removing the battery, pushing the back of the car down, therefore lifting the headlights up. Reconnect the battery and that lifted state will be memorized as 0-level by the headlights. Now remove the weight from the back, the car will come back into it's normal position but the lights think they are too low, so they will level themselves higher and therefore blind oncoming traffic...

Where I live, if you blind me with your long distance headlights, I will blind you with my long distance headlights, isn't that universal?

In the situation he's describing one driver is behind the other. Unless you have headlights that point backwards you won't be able to return the favor.

Sure I can, I can turn on the high beam just as they overtake me, not always in bad faith, but maybe they just forgot theirs accidentally and need a reminder; just as I will flash and then completely turn off my headlights when I see a car running without headlights at night in the city, sometimes people just forget. I once turned off my headlights in a hill traffic jam while completely stopped as I was blinding the guy in front of me on my lowest setting and to my surprise everyone did the same in a domino-fashion. Tit for tat is pretty good.

Oh, it totally is, but your attention is sure when they come in flying from behind and starting to blind you. I think that's what they want to achieve by being such jerks.

Wait, that's a thing? Do they reset them before the TüV inspection every time?

Having been blinded by oncoming traffic on the Autobahn a few times, reading this is extremely infuriating. Xenon headlights are especially vile.

Well, after all it's no big deal: How long do you think does it take you to disconnect the battery, get a coffee and two friends to sit in the trunk while you reconnect the battery? ;-)

And if you need to see the TÜV, you just leave out the trunk friends and are good to go as the headlights will then level themselves to the normal position again.

I've been blinded so often by Xenon headlights, I'm not sure if this is a widespread problem or if I'm just sensitive to those bright lights in the dark. On the other hand I've been blinded in daylight too, so it doesn't seem like it's about the darkness. And as my eyes have been tested to working very well I have the feeling that headlight settings are getting more aggressive even in normal mode.

If you're in the US, the situation of being blinded by low-beam headlights (I agree, it's a real problem) should hopefully be on its way to being addressed:


I'm in a rural area with literally zero street illumination. I cannot begin to describe my frustration with the blue tint, ultra bright lights, and off-road LED light bars. Install those on every other lifted truck (redneck's a plenty) and night time driving is hazardous.

I don't care who installed the lights, whether it was the factory, the current or previous driver/owner. If I can't see because of your lights, they're too damn bright.

Add driving a compact, low-to-the-ground car in a world of giant SUVs and pickups to that.

Lights should block out your night time vision no matter what, that is unavoidable. It is only a matter of how much goes.

When driving in rural areas, I sometimes flip off the lights to see much more in my periphery than I could with the lights on. This is dangerous of course, as the lights are meant more to be seen than to see.

> the lights are meant more to be seen than to see.

That's definitely false for headlights, fog lights, and for the extra light bars (well, maybe those are often installed as stylistic choices rather than utility).

Tail lights, running lights, turn signals are all more to be seen than to help the driver see.

Try it, it actually works, especially when there is a full moon.

I don't dispute that you can see more outside the beam of the light if the light is off.

You can see a surprising amount even just by starlight - but I wouldn't want to drive that way, knowing how I've stumbled over things a flashlight would have shown me.

Headlights are definitely to help the driver see (cloudy moonless nights, reflective road signs, etc.). Only at twilight or in fog would they be mostly to help you be seen. When it's really dark, running lights would be sufficient for that.

When you are traveling in the high desert, going without headlights is a great way to see and avoid deer. The deer aren’t going to be dazed by your headlights, and you can see them before they dash out in front of you on the road.

But this isn’t recommended because if another car came along they wouldn’t immediately be able to see you! Light makes you much more visible, and it also allows you to better see a narrow part of the road (more if wide beams are used), but it hides a lot. Of course, being in the high desert in the middle of the night off a freeway, there aren’t many other cars around anyways, if any.

I don't know what rural areas you're driving in, but on the roads to my house, flipping off the headlights would result in total darkness unless the moon's out. You won't see more in your periphery, you just won't see squat.

The moon is usually out. I’m referring to eastern Washington scrub land. I’ve also done it when driving through the four corners in the middle of the night, and then it was because of deer.

> The moon is usually out.

Is it? Do you think that the sun is usually out as well? And note that often the moon is out during the day...

For some definition of usually I guess. Whenever I tried this there was enough moon to make it work.

Probably you noticed that sometimes it was too dark to try :-)

Then you can be like Europe which already has legislation very like that proposal! Factory fitted lights will be fine when new, and dazzle as they get older, despite it supposedly on the MOT test list. But, half the daylight running LEDs now fitted are bright enough to dazzle from the second you roll it out of the showroom.

The worst case won't be touched at all - that's the thousands who've bought illegally bright aftermarket kits, installed illegally without adaptation or self-levelling, probably in illegal cool colours too. Not a police priority so few will get pulled.

Night driving is becoming ever more unpleasant as a result.

>Not a police priority so few will get pulled.

The American reticence to road cameras is a sign that we all think we're doing something that's illegal (we are). The laws need to be fixed.

>The laws need to be fixed.

If by fixed you mean changed to reflect the behavior of average people so that the average person is not breaking them daily then I fully agree.

Yeah, that's what I meant. Increase the speed limits and increase the punishments.

Great, will just wait 35 years for this feature to become reliable and work its way down to the majority of the US auto fleet.

I think it'll take more like 15-20 years, but yeah, it'll take a long time, and who knows how reliable the tech will be.

These laser headlights, for example, are much brighter by default than standard headlights, but their safety for other drivers depends presumably on moving parts. When these parts wear out, what's the likelihood that drivers get them fixed versus just continuing to drive as-is, melting other drivers' eyeballs?

It’s ridiculous. I find driving at night really treacherous now. I essentially slow down to a crawl if another car is coming, I just can’t see. Why do we need this?

The subheadline literally includes "but won’t blind oncoming traffic"...

> All of this luminosity leads to an obvious question: How are these devices, which have the approximate wattage of the klieg spotlights commonly found outside world premieres, supposed to be safely installed in the front of a car without inadvertently blinding oncoming traffic?

> “Because of the point source nature of the beam, you can pinpoint the light,” said Nakamura. “You can even shape it dynamically on the fly, so the beam will go down, or to the right, away from the eyes of motorists.”

>>You can even shape it dynamically on the fly, so the beam will go down, or to the right, away from the eyes of motorists.”

So, cyclists and pedestrians just have to deal with it, as always. Just like current "automatic" high-beam, which does an "ok" job at detecting other cars but fails completely at detecting other non-vehicular road users.

Or when you're parked facing a restaurant with glass windows.

Or when it's snowing and all that directed laser light is being reflected right back at you (not mentioning reflectors which are already absurdly bright with LED and halogen bulbs).

Or when you hit a bump in the road and the redirection of light doesn't occur fast enough.

Or when the vibration of fifty-thousand miles impairs the aiming mirrors. Can you imagine the pathological case of a partially broken DLP chip?

There's too many corner cases and (literally) moving pieces for this to really be practical.

As someone who doesn't trust his car's automatic high-beam, 100% this.

Are the lasers bright enough to be a health risk? You wouldn't attach a high power laser pointer to a moving vehicle either.

AFAICT these things don't actually emit laser light, they use a high power laser to stimulate some sort of phosphorus-like material that then emits incoherent white light. The point is then that this secondary light source is very small (compared e.g. to LED with similar lumens), so the light can be much more easily focused by optics.

You can already have this in a BMW. The new 3 series and I think the i8 has the option for laser headlights.

On the other hand, a directed beam highlighting "hey, there's a deer/bike/walker over there getting ready to walk into the street" has potentially positive safety benefits.

Perhaps it can be coded to light up the torso and legs and leave the face in darkness.

That is already done with IR cameras and flashing the object on the dash. We can have a discussion whether that is better or worse than trying to shine light directly on the object in the real world.

Look at 1:50 for demonstration:


(it looks like this system can actually "flash" at the object in real life, it can be seen a bit further in that video)

The thing is, when this tech hits, the aftermarket will eventually offer it too, and as anyone who's been around a vehicle with an aftermarket HID setup with no cutoff/a poor pattern/a poor install, the results can be blinding.

That’s still no help to pedestrians.

I don't really understand what he means. Just point it down at an angle? Or will it be motorized? How is it supposed to know where to point, some sort of fancy machine learning?

>Laser headlights have about the same consumer costs as current LED headlamps, in the low four-figure range.

Uh. What? Even recent model headlight assembly replacements that I can find are in the three-figure range, roughly $500 for a pair, and LED bulbs themselves are something like $125 for a pair. This is several times more expensive.

>>"Most people don’t turn on their car’s headlights and think, I wish they were brighter."

I guess I'm not "Most people" because I have desired more light since I got my license.

I've installed 100w Hella Euro projector lights for straight-line distance (appropriately calibrated as to not blind incoming traffic); and replaced my foglights (not particularly useful in Toronto, Canada) with corner beams - short distance, wide spread, installed at 45 degree angle, so I can illuminate slow speed turns into dark abyss that many drivways, hwy off-ramps, or small city streets are. At night on country roads, I never ever think "well, that's enough, I don't need more light".

Many [newer] cars have 'adaptive headlights' that angle the light towards the corner you're turning into. Works pretty well.

Citroen had that on the DS back in the stone age.


Some old cars too. Here's a discussion which indicates 1904 as possibly the earliest implementation: https://forums.aaca.org/topic/288789-first-vehicle-with-adap...

This comment gave me a chuckle: The Motor Cycle.....every one ever built has at least one.

But one more thing to break. I’ll take one order of parent’s solution that turns on and off based on steering angle.

Ok so bright headlights are annoying. Why are there no more HUD like systems to improve night-time visibility? Project an IR overlay over the windscreen, tune the lights back to normal, enough for visibility and the road right in front of you.

We're just getting to replacing the rear-view mirror with a camera. It will be a while before the windshield becomes (augmented) display.

Most backup cameras are rubbish. 320x480 CMOS sensors with very poor low light performance and several hundred millisecond latency. Even the Model 3, whose backup camera is amazing the first time you see it, isn't that great in low light conditions.

I'll be really sad to see cameras replace mirror on cars.

Are you sure it’s the sensors and not the infotainment display? I had a 2016 model of a car and just got the 2019. The display was significantly updated for 2019 and it has a noticeable improvement over the older model.

I am almost positive they are the same backup camera. The higher resolution screen shows better detail and light. I’ll look up the part number on Mopar when I get home but I’m sure the sensor is the same.

It's entirely possible that the poor image quality is the display but the poor low light performance is definitely the sensor.

My car has backup lights. They're white and illuminate really well. I can see way better on the camera than with my own vision surprisingly.

Chevy Suburban ~2012

That's probably the simplest solution to low light visibility issues. Cars already have reverse lights, making them illuminate the area behind the car seems like a lower cost solution to the problem.

>>We're just getting to replacing the rear-view mirror with a camera

And I wish we wouldn't; on average, 2019 cars seem to have far worse rear and rear-corner visibility than 2005 cars, and cameras are no replacement. They are either too low res, too narrow of a FOV (minimizing situational awareness), and even if they are perfect, 2 minutes driving in slush/mud/rain makes them useless.

/grouch grouch grumble grumble :)

In all seriousness, I see value of cameras complementing visibility (especially for low-height obstacles when reversing), but the current trend of replacing visibility leads into far less overall safety.

I agree so much with your assessment here. I just rented a 2018 Nissan Maxima, and I was really surprised how small the rear and rear side windows are. I felt like I could barely see anything when it came to changing lanes. I also nearly scraped the side into a family member's car, because the backup camera didn't show the other car at all, and I couldn't see around me enough to tell that I was inches away from it.

I think you would need very accurate and fast head tracking to overlay the road with enough precision to be safe.

Plus you still need some headlights for non-augmented cars to see you.

After the introduction of halogen headlights, I wrote to the queensland road safety authorities asking them to include glare as a risk factor alongside brightness for car headlight specs. I didn't get a very satisfactory response.

I think glare is probably now a higher risk than lack of light, for normal road driving with lights, especially given the emergence of the SUV with higher beams and higher physical lamp placement.

Off road? specialist/military? Sure. I can see that this kind of light would be hugely beneficial. for milspec usage, it might even have a dual function (ie deliberate dazzle)

But for routine use, I need to see legislative control on bad effects of lights on cars, to match obligations to meet minimums in light levels

(the article does talk about how lasers could be directed away from drivers, so there is hope this is a minimize dazzle thing)

I'd rather have the older dimmer headlights back, the projector lamps out now are absolutely blinding.

For reference, here are the IIHS headlight test criteria:


I wish my headlights were brighter almost any time I turn them on.

How do they avoid laser speckle?

The laser doesn't illuminate the road directly; it excites a phosphor puck that lights up white and is then focused and aimed like a regular incandescent filament or gas discharge arc. Just like white LEDs, only much more efficient.

Cool! Any reference for this?

Here's the most recent article I've seen:


Near the end of the article is a diagram of the new SDL (Dr. Shuji Nakamura's new company) laser diode, phosphor, and beam dump in an SMD package.

Wild ass guess? Multiple separate lasers. The interference patterns from each laser will overlap and additively smudge each other out.

Clean them. Modern plastic headlights oxidize and grow dimmer over time, but can be cleaned (from the inside) to restore brightness. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4QwzHOO-3lk


Laser speckle has nothing to do with your headlight plastic.

Are there any cars with non-plastic headlights? Do any have a crystalline front surface to maintain polish?

Example: fused-silica glass with a sapphire coating.

I'm not so sure about this. Even if you can avoid directly blinding drivers, what about all the wasted light from reflection? Are roadways now 10X brighter than they were before?

Is it possible to buy those in flashlight form-factor?

That would be a really nice flashlight to own

I always wondered what Data had done with all those golden coins.


As a pedestrian in NYC, I hate this. And don’t even talk about the impact to wildlife. Régressive technology. If anything, provide cheap lidar one détection, etc to help driver.

Great, another nuisance.

Nope, the headlight of the future is a LIDAR on a self-driving vehicle.

> It’s another reflection of how the increasingly...

I see what you did there.

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