The Volkswagen Microbus was a vehicle ahead of its time.

Many automotive historians consider the economical people mover a precursor to modern SUVs and minivans, while hippies in the 1960s considered it a great vehicle for trips – and traveling, as well.

In keeping with its trend-setting nature, the Microbus comes back to life today as a vehicle that maintains its familiar, square-ish jellybean proportions, while showcasing ground-breaking new technology that, in some cases, is not even in production automobiles today.

This past spring, Volkswagen of America Inc.’s Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, CA, completed its restoration of a red and white ’64 Deluxe Microbus that appears as if it just rolled off the assembly line, with it trademark bulbous hubcaps, whitewall tires and chrome trim.

Look closer, however, and it becomes apparent this particular Microbus has come a long way technologically.

The apt-named Chameleon concept Microbus represents one of the first applications of light-emitting diode (LED) headlamps, courtesy of Osram Sylvania Automotive Lighting.

Osram and other lighting suppliers have said in recent years that LED-based forward lighting will be in production vehicles as early as 2008.

In North America, the ’08 Lexus LS 460h L luxury hybrid-electric sedan, which arrives next year, is expected to be the first production vehicle featuring the technology.

Today, VWA will roll out the Chameleon for journalists at its headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI, and the high-tech headlamps will take center stage.

The LEDs are arrayed behind a unique lens that resembles a mathematical division sign, with two circular projectors separated by a horizontal, rectangular bar.

Each headlamp integrates 24 LEDs, most of them arrayed in Osram’s Joule standardized automotive LED modules.

In an attempt to reduce cost and improve efficiency, Osram devised the Joule system as a simple, flexible approach to automotive LED applications for forward lighting and turn signals. The ’06 and ’07 Mercury Mountaineer SUV was the first to use Osram’s Joule approach for the taillamps.

For the Chameleon headlamps, however, two Joule modules, each containing five LEDs, sit behind the rectangular lens and spread the low beam to the road. Four separate LEDs arrayed behind the bar also provide illumination for the daytime running lamps, says David Hulick, auxiliary lighting global product manager for Osram Sylvania.

The top projector, meanwhile, has a Joule module to bolster the low-beam, and the bottom projector has a Joule module for the high beam. Each Joule module has five LEDs.

Hulick describes the achievement of LED forward lighting in a beam pattern that meets federal safety regulations as the “Holy Grail of LED lighting.”

And, unlike most conventional headlamps, the Chameleon’s forward beams have no reflectors. For certain lighting applications, reflectors can be difficult to build, Hulick says.

In addition, the advent of clear lenses requires near perfect quality for the shiny reflectors inside headlamps. Cosmetic defects in reflectors in the days of fluted or frosted headlamps were not a problem because they were not visible. “Now, if there are any cosmetic defects in the reflector, it probably will get thrown out,” Hulick says.

Beyond the Lexus 460h, Hulick says he is not aware of other market introductions for LED headlamps. Supplier sources, however, have said they should become increasingly common after 2007 or 2008.

Yes, LED headlamps are more expensive, but Hulick says the various hurdles associated with the technology are not overwhelming. “We will be able to overcome the thermal, optical and cost challenges we have today,” he says.

Volkswagen invited Osram Sylvania to join the Chameleon program in fall 2005. The goal was to finish the vehicle by May 2006 for an in-house engineering symposium for VW and Audi staffers in Germany. Osram Sylvania met the deadline.

“Our goal was to incorporate as much new electronic technology as possible, without changing the character of the vehicle,” Hulick says. “I’m happy they used the Microbus because it’s an iconic vehicle. It’s not just a show car for internal discussion that can never be shown to the public.”

He says the Chameleon’s LED headlamps provide great nighttime visibility, on par with conventional halogen lights, without generating excessive glare. But Hulick admits they are not as bright as blue-tinted high-intensity discharge headlamps, which have become common in luxury cars.

Inside the Chameleon, cabin lighting comes from Osram Sylvania’s O-Star product line, which uses an array for four LEDs packaged together. A flexible fiber-optic cable carries light to eight locations on the walls and in the floor. LEDs also bathe the dashboard in red light in the evening.

In production vehicles today, LEDs are appearing increasingly in map lights, on instrument panels and door handles, behind instrument clusters and inside cupholders.

In July, the Chameleon returned to the U.S. from Germany for an alternative-vehicle show and a Volkswagen owners’ club event, both in Boston.

Vickie Chiang, an engineer at the Electronics Research Laboratory, says about 30 staffers in Palo Alto worked on the Chameleon.

Besides Osram Sylvania, she credits another key supplier, Hybrid Technologies, for converting the Microbus completely to electric drive. Ten lithium polymer batteries give the bus a range of about 100 miles (160 km), Chiang says.

Two surfboards on top of the bus appear to be purely cosmetic, but they contain flexible solar cells, which provide trickle charges to the main battery pack, Chiang says.

Volkswagen is quick to dispel the notion the Microbus is coming back into production.

“There is no plan to bring it back,” a VW spokesman says. “It’s just an interesting platform to bring the best of old and new technologies together.”

VW, however, will debut a minivan for the U.S. market (derived from Chrysler Group’s successful minivan platform) in the fourth quarter of 2008.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com