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.”

J Mays, Ford's group vice president and chief creative officer, says the use of LEDs 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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