Audi seeks edge in global sales race with non-blinding high beams

Audi's Matrix LED system, shown, links computer-controlled LEDs with a camera.
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FRANKFURT (Bloomberg) -- In its bid to overtake BMW as the world's best-selling luxury carmaker, Audi wants to dazzle, not blind.

Next-generation headlamps provide a visible showcase of a brand's technology and are key to gain an edge in the premium-car market.

Innovations such as bright, energy-efficient LED headlights, smart high beams, and infrared-assisted spotlights that shine on potential road-side threats like deer also help BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz justify higher prices than mass-market competitors.

"Luxury-car margins are under pressure as the carmakers expand their lineups and mass-market vehicles improve in quality," said August Joas, head of the global automotive practice at consultant Oliver Wyman in Munich. "New headlight technologies are innovations that are easily noticed."

In a pitch-black museum hall near Dusseldorf, Germany, in October, the automaker had a woman walk to and fro in front of a harsh white cone of light from a car's high beams. Instead of blinding the woman, who was carrying a flashlight to simulate a bike rider at night, the light automatically shied away from wherever she went while keeping the roadway lit.

Audi's latest headlamp technology, which is more advanced than competing systems from BMW and Mercedes, links computer-controlled LEDs with a camera to spare as many as eight vehicles from the glare of the high beams.

Independent LEDs

The system, called Matrix LED, was introduced in Germany in mid-November as a 2,400 euro ($3,200) option on the 74,500 euro A8 flagship sedan. The feature hasn't been approved yet for the United States.

The new Audi system combines 50 independently controlled LEDs to create almost 1 billion different light variations, adjusting for traffic situations such as city and highway driving and oncoming cars and bicycles. "We have redefined light," Stephan Berlitz, Audi's head of lighting development, said at the October presentation. "The driver always has the best possible light."

Mercedes is looking to keep pace and will present a similar option, dubbed Active Multibeam LED, next year. The world's third-largest luxury-auto brand earlier this year rolled out the new S class, the first car to abandon old-fashioned light bulbs and rely completely on LEDs throughout the car, underscoring under-the-hood technology such as six cameras and six radars that support safety systems.

Replacing Xenon

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, have replaced Xenon, which was first introduced by BMW in the 1990s, as the hot, new lighting technology for high-end carmakers. LEDs were used in headlights in 2007 by Lexus and closely followed by Audi, which had the first full-LED headlamps.

LED technology uses less energy and lasts longer than traditional halogen bulbs, which have been the industry standard for decades. The semiconductor-based lights can also be made smaller and offer more styling flexibility.

"The lights of a car are the icing on the cake," said Stefan Handt, a designer at Mercedes. Lighting is "comparable to good cuff links with a fine suit or selected jewelry with an evening dress."

Lighting demand

Wealthy drivers are also willing to pay for extras like advanced lights that can help improve safety. Accidents at night tend to be more severe -- 24 percent of German auto crashes in the dark last year included deaths or severe injuries, compared with 20 percent in daylight, even though fewer cars are on the road, according to the country's statistics office.

"There's definitively demand for high-end lighting packages because of the design and because of safety," said Daniel Wucherpfennig, a salesman at an Audi dealer in Frankfurt. About 70 percent of A8 customers in Germany order the top lighting option when they buy the car, Audi said.

New lights link to the navigation system and start illuminating corners even before the wheels are turned because the car knows where the road goes. For Audi's Matrix LEDs, GPS technology also helps the car determine when to turn on the brights -- at higher speeds in cities than rural areas.

"Lighting technologies are especially important for luxury carmakers," said Ralf Landmann, a partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Frankfurt. "The headlights shape the face of a vehicle. It's a distinctive feature."

Angel eyes

Audi has flat, angular lights that are meant to express precision. Mercedes uses day-time running lights to create a brow that varies depending on the type of model. For BMW, an array of four round headlights has been part of the brand's image since the late 1980s. Corona rings around each lamp, so-called angel eyes, were added in 2000, making the brand more attached to a specific lighting setup than others.

"Headlights are the most important elements on the exterior to show the technological progressiveness of a brand," said BMW designer Andreas Knoedler-Bunte. "My job is to carefully design the evolution of an icon."

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