In 2013, the Audi A8 sedan wowed the auto industry with a matrix-beam headlamp that used 25 LEDs to emit a self-dimming high beam.
So imagine the oohs and aahs if you could create a high beam produced by as many as 50,000 pixels -- each of which could be turned on or off.
The result would be a razor-sharp high beam that would eliminate glare for oncoming motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. The high beam would be so precise that the headlamp could, in theory, project messages onto the road ahead to alert others. Such messages could be icons indicating "right turn," "left turn" or "I will stop."
Hella and Osram, the suppliers that produced the Audi A8's headlamps, have formed a consortium with Daimler to develop such a lighting system.
"We call it a high-definition headlamp -- like a television," said Steffen Pietzonka, global marketing chief for automotive lighting at Hella. "There are endless opportunities."
The headlamp, like several other automotive components, has been transformed by computer chips. Other such components include seats, which soon may recognize drivers from their posture and body shape; cruise control, which is morphing into a control system for self-driving vehicles; and so-called smart radios, which are learning how to analyze preferences such as news, music or talk.
A high-definition headlamp would get its light from as many as 25 LEDs that would shine onto a liquid crystal display. That display, in turn, would be made up of thousands of pixels that would be individually controlled -- creating a virtually infinite number of on-off combinations.
After a forward-looking camera spots an oncoming car, an onboard computer would switch off any pixel that might shine light in an oncoming motorist's face. That's essentially how a matrix-beam headlight works, Pietzonka said, but the result is a much more precise high beam.
There are technical hurdles. A liquid crystal display blinks on and off more sluggishly in low temperatures, a problem if an oncoming vehicle suddenly appears on a cold night.
Researchers also must figure out how to shrink the LCD to fit inside a headlamp. They also must show that an LCD headlamp can withstand vibration and other environmental hazards.
Given those uncertainties, the consortium is tinkering with other technologies, too. One possibility is a micro-LED that would allow researchers to fit hundreds of LED chips into a headlamp. Another is a headlamp reflector made of several thousand tiny mirrors, each of which could be controlled.
Technologies using LCD, micro-LED or tiny mirrors have yet to emerge from the laboratory, cautions Julian Dench, chief of Osram's global solid-state lighting unit. "It isn't clear at the moment which will be the dominant technology," Dench said. "Each of them brings their challenges."
While researchers tinker with next-generation technology, conventional matrix-beam headlamps gain momentum. After the Audi A8's debut, the BMW 3-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class sedans were fitted with matrix-beam headlamps.
So even if the new technology requires another decade of r&d, there's a bright future for self-dimming headlamps.