Advanced lighting technology is providing automotive designers with another tool to enhance vehicle brand identity, industry experts and observers agree.

Light-emitting-diode technology, in particular, is proving popular, although its relatively high price largely has relegated use to high-end vehicles.

Unlike traditional lighting, LEDs can be used in a variety of configurations, creating design opportunities that previously were not possible, says Larry Erickson, chairman of the Transportation Design Dept. at the Detroit-based College for Creative Studies. Erickson served as chief designer for Ford Motor Co.’s Strategic Design Group before moving to CCS.

“The full-width stoplights on the ’92 (Cadillac) Seville were LEDs, and that was (the first) mini-step (into mainstream),” he tells Ward’s. Since then the use of the lights among auto makers and suppliers has increased. At CCS, “lighting is brought up more and more as a facet of self-expression and innovation, he adds.”

With the auto industry becoming increasingly competitive, LEDs afford greater differentiation, Erickson says. “As cars become equal on other fronts, (auto makers) are going to need a ‘wow’ aspect to bowl people over.”

LED lighting also can be used to appeal to consumers’ sense of fashion, he says. “The car is the biggest thing you can wear. Everyone wants to step out of their car and think it is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.”

J Mays, Ford’s group vice president and chief creative officer, says the use of LED is becoming an integral part of Ford’s design strategy. “It brings different and more technical communication of design direction and fits in with one of the three pillars of our brand DNA within Ford, one of which is class-leading technology,” he tells Ward’s.

While a growing number of production vehicles are using LED lights, more dramatic examples of the technology’s possibilities are found on show cars such as the Volvo S60 concept exhibited at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Former Volvo Design Director Steve Mattin says the concept’s LED headlamps are shaped like Viking longboats to reflect the auto maker’s Scandinavian heritage.

“When we started creating the first sketches on this vehicle, we wanted to create a different look and identity,” he says. “And some of the ideas that came out of the initial sketches started to look like Viking ships. We found it a cool, Scandinavian way to show technology in a unique way.”

The S60 concept illustrates a farfetched use of the technology, but there are more practical applications.

Mazda Motor Corp. uses LEDs in the taillights of the new Mazda3 Grand Touring model. “With current LED technology, we were able to get some of the Nagare (concept car) influence into the production design of the car,” Senior Designer Jonathan Frear says.

Honda R&D Americas Inc. Chief Designer Dave Marek cites the Acura MDX cross/utility vehicle as an example of how LED lighting can enhance brand DNA.

“We wanted the identity on the rear taillights for safety and (to make) it identifiable,” he tells Ward’s. “We started to look at (LEDs) in the taillights to create a pattern to convey brand image.”

Honda, as with most other auto makers, currently confines LED technology to its high-end vehicles due to the higher cost. However, that trend likely will change as the technology becomes more affordable.

But already the auto maker is talking about LEDs becoming increasingly common in its gauge clusters. “The instrument panel is probably the most complicated part, other than the motor,” Marek says. “I think LEDs have much more ability to make it more functional.”

Steffen Pietzonka, vice president-marketing for supplier Hella KGaA Hueck & Co.’s Lighting Div. says there is “big demand coming from the volume segment asking for (LED) technology.

“We’re talking with a lot of OEMs that are very interested in introducing (LED) technology into car models,” he tells Ward’s.

Pietzonka says nearly all auto makers will have some LED element on their vehicles in the near future to create a unique styling, whether it be a “small angle, arrow or an etch.”

As the technology is perfected and costs come down, he predicts LEDs will make their way into headlamps, which so far is being done on a limited basis.

By 2013, Hella expects as many as seven auto makers will introduce full LED headlamps in up to 10 vehicles sold in the U.S. and Europe. In the Asia/Pacific region, up to 13 models are expected to be equipped with the technology in that timeframe.

One driver for LED growth is the increasing demand for energy efficiency. However, while the costlier LEDs generally are more efficient than traditional halogen lights, their performance doesn’t measure up to energy-intensive xenon technology, Pietzonka says.

“We have to ask the customer if they need xenon performance, or if it would be better to have (lights) that are better than halogen and focus more on energy efficiency,” he says. “We accept (LEDs) are not on a xenon level.”

If enough consumers are willing to accept LEDs, Hella will be able to cut the price of LED dramatically, opening the door for more widespread implementation.

“LED technology is the light source of the future,” Pietzonka says. “I expect in a few a years, say 2020, halogen systems, because of their high-energy consumption, won’t be acceptable, especially in the U.S. with (President) Obama’s new decision for energy efficiency.”

LEDs increasingly are being used for vehicle interiors. One of the first cars to employ the technology was the ’05 Ford Mustang. In enable personalization, the car featured an industry-first, color-configurable instrument cluster.

“I was chief designer on the program and remember the meeting about the cluster, and the feeling was ‘it’s a cool idea,’” Erickson says. “It was the feeling of (providing consumers) control, and that’s a huge thing.

“The downside was you had four good colors and 16 that didn't look so good. But it was about people doing what they wanted. Talking about it is one thing, thing, he adds, “but when you experience it, it has more depth than you thought.”

As is so often the case in vehicle design, what goes around comes around. The redesigned-for-’10 Mustang builds on its predecessor’s use of the lighting technology with new taillamps incorporating three LEDs that fire in a sequential pattern for turn indication, a feature inspired by 1960s-era Mustangs.

bpope@wardsauto.com