LONDON - New technology, changes in European law and the demands of car designers have combined to cause a revolution in automotive lighting.
More change is on the way. Leading headlamp suppliers, including Bosch, Valeo and Visteon, have developed models of 'expert' headlamps that adjust the beam and its intensity according to road conditions. European suppliers are working on the project within the framework of the European Union's Eureka program.
Also coming are Bi-xenon headlamps, which use a single light source for dipped and main beam. Hella spokesman Ulrich Koester said the technology reduces energy consumption, uses less space and offers more flexibility for car designers.
Xenon lights were introduced in 1991 and applications have been growing in Europe, spreading downward from top-end Mercedes-Benz and BMW models. About 600,000 cars on Europe's roads have Xenon headlamps, including the Bosch Lictronic system. Hella estimates that by 2000 annual production of cars with Xenon headlamps will reach one million units.
In June, Bosch introduced its dual-function Bi-Lictronic system with a poly-ellipsoid lamp for compact and flat-form styling. Valeo is working on a bi-function lighting system that derives both high and low beams from a single high-intensity discharge source.
Flexibility in styling
Valeo has also been working on increasing design flexibility with its Baroptic system, which reduces the depth and height needed for the lighting units.
Design has also been an important factor for new developments in passive lighting.
'Jewel' lamps have a beam pattern that is controlled by the reflector in the unit, rather than the lens. This gives a wider and more consistent spread of light.
Valeo's most recent application of the technology is on the Toyota Avensis. Hella is supplying jewel effect lights on the Volkswagen Lupo and Bora, the GM Astra and Ford Focus.
In addition, new light sources such as LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) and neon are being used in signal lamps, adding to the range of styling options.
Assembly of lighting units is also changing. Headlamps are increasingly being assembled into front-end modules.
Valeo showed a rear-door module with an integrated high third brake light at the Paris auto show.
Valeo spokeswoman Francoise Baptiste said vehicle makers are relying on suppliers to deliver complete interior and exterior lighting systems, particularly for small and medium volume vehicles.
But 'for the moment the design and production of headlamps remains traditional for front-end module programs,' Baptiste said. 'There are no front-end programs with headlamp integration in the structure of the module.'
Hella, Valeo's German rival, has assembled front-end modules incorporating headlamps for Volkswagen's Mosel plant since the early 1990s. Hella also assembles front-ends for the Volkswagen Beetle and Bora in Mexico.
As it gains experience, Hella has been given more responsibility on future car programs. Koester said Hella has design responsibility for the front-end module on the new Skoda Felicia.
Suppliers have also focused on improving headlamp mounting and making lights flush-fitting, with fewer gaps.
Shift to plastic
Recent years have also seen a big shift away from glass to lighter and cheaper plastic headlamps. The change was made possible by changes in EU law four years ago. Most major headlamp producers have invested in facilities to manufacture the new product.
The change has also attracted new competitors to the lighting sector.
The second-largest passive illumination supplier, privately owned Seima SpA, plans to enter the front headlamps market.
Seima has 24 percent of the European market for rear, side, license-plate and high brake lights in Europe, but had kept out of front headlights because its strength was in manufacturing plastic lighting units.
The shift of European headlamps to plastic has created an opportunity for Seima.
In late 1997, it signed an agreement with Japanese lighting specialist Stanley Electric, which acquired 16.1 percent of Seima. The two companies are working on headlamps for a Japanese car to be sold in Europe in the next three to four years, according to a Seima spokesman.