DETROIT – It would seem to make perfect sense for the SUV segment’s first fully functional light-emitting-diodes headlamp to arrive with the ’08 Cadillac Escalade Platinum edition.

GM desperately wants its recently moribund Cadillac division to recapture its glory days, when the luxury marque was known globally for combining bold design with over-the-top luxury and technological innovation.

But the technology isn’t cheap. So GM and lighting supplier Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. needed an application that could accommodate the premium LED commands over traditional halogen bulbs and the high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs that have bled into the market more recently.

Cadillac Escalade Global Product Manager David Schiavone says GM initially might go so far as to subsidize replacement of an LED headlamp should it become damaged in a crash. “That discussion continues,” he says during a technical demonstration of the Escalade’s new headlamps here.

Officials from GM and Hella decline to discuss pricing of an LED headlamp, saying only that replacement costs are significant.

GM will bundle the LED headlamps together with other premium items on Escalade Platinum packages, which arrive at dealers shortly after production begins in March at the auto maker’s Arlington, TX, facility.

GM has not released pricing on the premium model, which was unveiled at the Miami International Auto Show in November. However, a Cadillac spokesman says consumers can expect a sticker close to the $66,000 they would pay for a fully loaded Escalade.

That means the LED headlamps likely aren’t going to trickle down to the mass-market products such as the Chevrolet Malibu or Toyota Camry until sometime after 2010, says Martin Fischer, president of Hella Electronics Corp.

“The dream has been there forever, (but) within the next decade it will become mass market,” Fischer tells Ward’s.

The only other vehicle on the market today with LED headlamps is the Lexus LS 600L, which uses the technology for low-beam illumination only. The ’09 Audi R8 performance coupe due later this year will receive fully functional LED headlamps.

Auto makers have employed LED technology for taillamps over the last 15 years, and the technology has nearly displaced incandescent bulbs for interiors. And LED headlamps are a staple of today’s concept cars, such as the Honda CR-Z hybrid and Land Rover LRX shown at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The Escalade first received LED taillamps for the ’07 model year, marking the fullsize SUV’s third-generation redesign. Cadillac’s first-ever exterior LED application appeared in 2001 on the fullsize DTS sedan’s taillamps, and other models have added the technology in subsequent years.

Fischer expects U.S. consumers will follow the lead of their European counterparts, who prefer LEDs because they eliminate HID’s glare and bluish hue that can distract other motorists. Fully functional LED headlamps still await regulatory approval there, he says.

Unlike the U.S., where the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. plans to submit a report on nighttime glare from headlamps in March, “There is no glare discussion in Europe,” Fischer says.

However, European regulators do demand washer/sprayers accompany LED headlamps to prevent the accumulation of dust that bends light to create glare. He expects regulatory approval by the third quarter.

Fischer says LED headlamps emit yellowish light that more closely resembles daylight, unlike the harsh blue hue of HIDs, while also more effectively distributing light.

Fisher predicts Americans initially will adopt LED technology because of its unique appearance. “It will sell itself,” he says. And as the technology matures and costs decrease, consumers will gravitate toward it for the added value – Hella’s fully functional LEDs currently last up to 20 times longer than halogens.

And there are other differences. For example, unlike HID headlamps, which generate a beam pattern from an electric arc inside a capsule filled with xenon gas, LED headlamps are driven by the movement of electrons on microchips.

Until now, LEDs could not generate enough light for a fully functional headlamp execution, but Hella has combined multiple chips with the industry’s first adoption of free-form glass lenses that project sufficient light.

Each Escalade Platinum headlamp module weighs 10-11 lbs. (4.5-5 kg), slightly more than a halogen module, and is made up of seven lenses. Each lens is responsible for lighting a portion of the roadway, and only two of the seven lenses are identically shaped.

Hella adds a small, high-performance fan to perform thermal management in the headlamp and also to cool and ventilate the LED chips.

Five optical units stacked at the outer edge of the module provide low-beam illumination, while two units at the inner edge perform the high-beam function. A light pipe between the low-beam lenses and the side marker also utilizes LED technology.

Dimming the low beams serves as the Escalade Platinum’s daytime running lamps. The DRLs represent the sole energy savings the LED module will have vs. halogen, Fischer says, adding, “we will see additional energy savings in the future.”

For Cadillac, the addition of fully functional LED headlamps on the Escalade Platinum marks another step in regaining its reputation as a technical innovator.

It also provides another flourish to the design renaissance that began at Cadillac some six years ago with the second-generation Escalade and the first-generation CTS luxury sports sedan.

“Today, you know when you are (driving) behind an Escalade,” Schiavone says of the LEDs stacked in its rear taillamp. “Now, coming from the front, there will be no mistaking it as an Escalade. It now has design character from the front and rear.”

Design flexibility ranks as another great advantage of LED technology, Fischer says.

While Cadillac stacks its lights as a nod to the brand’s design heritage, Hella could execute any number of designs that convey a vehicle’s corporate identity, Fischer says. “We could make a smiley face if the customer wanted.”

Hella initially plans to produce the LED headlamp modules at its plant in Lippstadt, Germany.

jamend@wardsauto.com