The race is on. Three months ago, BMW announced plans to offer optional laser headlights on its i8 plug-in hybrid supercar by the end of this year. Audi's technical development chief, Ulrich Hackenberg, has promised to get the feature to market even faster.
"Thanks to our efficient technology transfer, we will be the first car brand to put laser light into production," Hackenberg said at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.
Hackenberg unveiled the Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car following a near-blinding laser light show at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Jan. 6. The following day he said that the 2014 R18 E-tron Quattro Le Mans racecar will get laser headlights for its premiere competition in April.
Hackenberg also vowed that Audi would be first to put laser headlights into a production vehicle, but he did not name the model or its introduction date.
Nevertheless, laser headlights -- until recently an exotic toy for the auto industry -- seem poised to challenge LEDs as the industry's showcase high-tech headlamps.
Hackenberg said Audi's laser high beams have a 500-meter range, roughly twice the distance of LED high beams. Lasers are also energy efficient but expensive.
Audi first revealed its interest in lasers at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show when it unveiled an A2 concept car equipped with rear fog lights powered by laser diodes.
Meanwhile, BMW has announced plans to introduce laser high beams late this year as optional equipment for its i8 coupe. The lights won't be available in U.S. models until the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration signs off.
Brighter, more efficient
Laser diodes are part of an array of energy-saving devices that BMW has incorporated into its i8 and its new i3 electric car. Lasers are smaller, brighter and more energy efficient than LED headlamps. According to BMW, the i8's laser headlamps use less than half the energy of LEDs.
BMW has not identified its laser supplier, but Osram Opto Semiconductors, a major producer of LED lighting, has invested heavily in laser technology.
Sevugan Nagappan, Osram's marketing manager for infrared and laser products, declined to indicate whether his company will supply laser diodes to BMW.
But Nagappan said laser technology is more than an exotic technological toy. "There is definitely interest outside BMW for using laser diodes," Nagappan said. "People are looking into it. They want to figure out whether it makes sense or not."
According to BMW, a laser diode can emit 170 lumens per watt, while LEDs generate only 100 lumens. A lumen is a unit of visible light. But lasers are sensitive to heat, but engineers can design heat sinks to dissipate a laser diode's excess heat, Nagappan said.
Laser prices, which no one wants to estimate until serial production starts, should decline as volume increases. And that could happen as manufacturers start using laser diodes in overhead projectors used in conference rooms.
While Nagappan is optimistic about the prospects for lasers, it's unclear whether they have a decisive advantage over LEDs, which have proved well-suited for taillamps, turn signals and daytime running lights. As prices have declined, LEDs have proved useful for headlamps, too. Last September, Audi unveiled its redesigned A8 sedan, which features an adjustable high beam generated by an array of 25 LEDs.
Given the versatility of LEDs, it's unclear how quickly competitors will adopt laser technology. The Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept suggests that lasers and LEDs might coexist.
The concept's high beams are laser-powered, but the low beams feature a matrix of LED diodes. While lasers have received a lot of recent attention, no one is writing off LEDs, which have demonstrated their versatility despite prices that are an estimated three times higher than xenon lights. Analysts say a standard xenon headlight might cost $60 to $80 while a simple halogen headlight costs automakers about $20.