The headlight of the future is a laser

Car models such as the BMW i8 already offer laser light options.
Car models such as the BMW i8 already offer laser light options.PHOTO: BMW

Laser-based lighting system is said to be 10 times brighter than LED lights, but will not blind oncoming traffic

NEW YORK • Most people don't turn on their car's headlights and think, I wish they were brighter.

Professor Shuji Nakamura is not most people. The Nobel Prize-winning illumination scientist has spent the past five years developing a laser-based lighting system.

His company, SLD Laser, says the new design is 10 times brighter than today's LED lights, capable of illuminating objects a kilometre away while using less power than any current technology.

And unlike a regular, dumb headlight, the laser can potentially be integrated into current and forthcoming driver-assistance systems.

As cars move towards more enhanced and powerful semi-autonomous systems, which rely not only on constant cloud computing for their decision-making but also on clear forward "vision" through their cameras and sensors, light and data transmission will have huge implications for driver safety. 

SLD's laser can also transmit data via Li-Fi, which is similar to Wi-Fi but utilises light and transmits data faster. The company has yet to fully develop this capability, but says it is in the works. 

During a night-time demonstration at the Apex OHV Recreational Area outside Las Vegas, we toyed with flashlights built with the new technology. The precise beam easily illuminated the craggy edges of distant mountains. A light bar mounted to an off-road truck brilliantly exposed the washboard ruts, sandy hills and gravel beds during a fiendish blast through the desert. 

All of this luminosity leads to an obvious question: How are these devices, which have the approximate wattage of the klieg spotlights commonly found outside world premieres, supposed to be safely installed in the front of a car without inadvertently blinding oncoming traffic?

"Because of the point source nature of the beam, you can pinpoint the light," said Prof Nakamura. "You can even shape it dynamically on the fly, so the beam will go down or to the right, away from the eyes of motorists." 

While cars like the BMW i8 and Audi R8 already offer laser light options, the technology will appear in more models this year, such as BMW's 5-series and M cars.

But observers reckon a more widespread adoption will depend on how fast regulations evolve and how uniform those regulations are.

The lack of consistency increases vehicle production costs because of the higher price of customising individual parts. (Laser headlights have about the same consumer costs as current LED headlamps, in the low four-figure range.)

SLD has developed something of a workaround for the home market while it lobbies United States regulators to change automotive lighting standards.

"We are working instead on what we call a high-beam boost, where we add laser light to the high-beam headlights in a car," Prof Nakamura said. 

"Though we have to tone down the brightness for the American market, we are still three times brighter than LED lights."

The company is also developing products for off-road vehicles, interior automotive lights and daytime running lights. 

In the interim, Prof Nakamura will be licensing the technology in other products for the US market: home lighting, stadium lighting, photography and adventure applications, to name a few.

But he remains certain that laser lights will eventually triumph, just as LEDs have.

"Soon, laser will become the premium option," he said. "And it will eventually find its way into the mass market."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2019, with the headline 'The headlight of the future is a laser'. Print Edition | Subscribe