Lighting systems almost always are a prominent feature at SAE, but interior and exterior systems shine especially bright this year. Visteon Automotive Systems wins the prize for the most futuristic, but Cooper Automotive, Osram-Sylvania Products Inc., and Hewlett Packard also make news on technology or business fronts.

Visteon breaks new ground by showing off full taillamps lit by solid-state lasers. Less than 1 in. (25 mm) thick, the single-unit laser system is claimed to be easier to package and wire, to require less power and be more reliable than comparable LED (light emitting diode) systems. Visteon says lasers offer a substantial systems cost savings compared with LEDs and never burn out or require maintenance. However, a spokesman allows that it will likely be awhile before the technology is feasible for mass-production.

Meanwhile Hewlett-Packard goes after traditional incandescent bulb technology with refined LED technology for taillamps, stop lamps and turn signals. H-P's "SnapLED" features a thin design and new fastening process that enables automakers to eliminate the deep cavities designed in today's car bodies to accommodate bulky incandescent bulbs. That translates into benefits such as more usable trunk space.

On the more practical side, Cooper Automotive has developed a distributive lighting system that should be on a production vehicle by 2001. An outgrowth of that was one of SAE's most interesting little achievements: lighted cupholders.

Distributive lighting systems pipe light to various parts of a vehicle using only a few central light sources. Under development for years by various suppliers, they've usually been deemed too expensive. But Cooper has managed to cut costs significantly by replacing expensive fiber optic cables with durable, rigid, thermoplastic light pipes that can be robotically installed.

That means automakers now can cost-effectively light components that now are in the dark, from hard-to-find window switches and door handles to cupholders - with just one light source.

A source at Osram Sylvania says powerful high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps - currently only available on luxury vehicles - likely will soon be offered on more plebeian wheels soon. Volkswagen AG Chairman Ferdinand Piech reportedly has instructed engineers to include HID headlamps as an option on all new VW models, including high-volume cars such as the Golf.