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The Speed of Light: Auto Illumination Is Set for Rapid Innovation

Author: Kimberly Peiler, Senior Manager, Application Engineering, OSRAM Opto Semiconductors


The automotive industry is rapidly evolving. And I don’t just mean electric vehicles and driverless cars. Auto tech is moving forward everywhere, even in areas as fundamental as the lighting inside your car.


The average car on the road today is not distinguished by high-design interior lighting. It’s the dome light and that’s pretty much it. And for good reason. If my kids switch on the overhead light in the backseat because they want to read a book or play with a toy, I immediately have to tell them to switch it off because I don’t want to be distracted. And I don’t want drivers in the vehicles around me to be distracted.


The ability to concentrate on the road is paramount. It is quite difficult to see into a dark space from a well-lit one. That’s why, traditionally, the lighting in automobiles has been minimized: so it doesn’t interfere with your driving.


But, increasingly, automakers are developing lighting possibilities that actually enhance the driving experience and make it safer. That’s why we’re now seeing exciting applications related to the use of light in cars.


Take the humble cigarette lighter, which in the mobile era quickly morphed into the primary power source for charging your phone. It has continued to evolve into a standard USB port as a more compact, mainstream way to charge mobile devices. Until a few years ago, this power port was a dark hole that you could not easily find when driving at night.  In addition, apps for navigation are constantly on, even for routine routes because drivers want real-time traffic information to optimize commutes.  People on the go are constantly draining their phone batteries with these apps, but still need to end their commute with a full battery for everything else they need to do.  On more than one occasion, I’ve fumbled around trying to plug in my adapter, and anyone doing this while driving this can put their life at risk in the process. In new cars, however, that dark hole is a brightly illuminated port that’s easy to find.


Here’s another example. Let’s say you drop your keys on the floor. The overhead light probably won’t be much help in locating them, especially if they’ve tumbled under a seat, as they so often seem to do. But what if the exact spot where your keys have landed is automatically illuminated? In fact, lighting can now be integrated in various materials throughout your car, which opens up a world of possibilities for automakers.


And looking forward, as we enter a new era of driverless cars, interior lighting will become even more interesting. Every futurist loves to reference The Jetsons, that iconic cartoon from the 1960s. I distinctly remember one scene in which George gets into his flying car, kicks back and opens up his newspaper—and the transparent car drives him to work all on its own. We’re closer to that day than we ever thought.


So what does this mean for lighting? Well, think about it. If you’re not actually driving your car, you’ll be doing all sorts of other things. Suddenly, your car is not just a car. It’s an office on wheels, a library, a living room, an art studio where you can paint a picture during your commute hours. Logically, cars will need lighting that’s appropriate for all these activities and many more.


When your car drives itself, lighting becomes far more important to your driving (or riding) experience, even—especially—as the task of driving diminishes. Not only the brightness of the light but its spectrum, as well as how, where and when it’s delivered. All of these factors become relevant. Instead of a single overhead light, cars will need a broad distribution of light applications that render colors better and adjust to the environment and task.


Indeed, the lights in your car will be more like the lights in your home, with options for warm light or cool light or something in between. Today you can automatically adjust your home lighting to match your preference at the moment, like a yellowish light at night to help you sleep or a cold blue light during the day to channel alertness for studying or working. Soon these kinds of options will be available in cars as well.


The lighting industry has long been focused on markets like the home and office. But the next wave of innovation is likely to be inside the car. So buckle up and enjoy the ride, because the future of driving looks bright.




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