Today, light can be used for many other purposes besides illumination. Vehicles will soon be employing light in intelligent assistance and safety systems that communicate with pedestrians and can even project virtual pedestrian crossings onto the roadway.
In the midst of a raging storm, a commuter is slowly driving home along a country road, sleet lashing against the windshield. The skies have been overcast all day and although it is only early afternoon it is already getting dark. As he passes through the dimly lit streets of a small village, suddenly the driver hears an acoustic warning signal. The vehicle’s thermal imaging camera has detected something hidden in the dark at the side of the road. The vehicle immediately flashes a spotlight in that direction without diverting any light from the road and displays the view on the cockpit monitor. The driver instantly spots a group of children who look like they are about to cross the road. After a quick glance in his mirror to check there is no one behind him, the driver brakes the car to a halt. At his command, the intelligent lighting assistance system projects a pedestrian crossing onto the roadway with the car’s headlights. The children take each other by the hand and cross the dark village road in safety.
This imaginary scenario could soon become a reality. Until now, the main use of vehicle lights has been to light up the darkness. But in the future, they could perform all sorts of other functions, too. Lights are increasingly seen as a means of enabling further improvements in road safety. Many manufacturers are investigating completely new lighting scenarios – including the idea of using the car’s headlights to project a pedestrian crossing onto the roadway. “LED technology is opening up a whole host of potential new functions,” says Volkswagen Head of Lighting and Vision, Ricardo Plöger. “It’s not only the light source that has changed – the technology behind it is different, too.” Rather than simply shining straight ahead, for example, today’s intelligent lighting systems also respond to steering inputs. Such scenarios facilitated by modern LED lights are worlds away from anything the six-volt Bilux headlights on an old VW Beetle could do. “We are currently developing intelligent lighting solutions capable of adapting to every conceivable driving situation. This will make driving in the dark and in low light safer than ever,” adds Mathias Thamm, who heads up the technologies and innovations team in Volkswagen’s Lighting and Vision department. While vehicle lights have always played an important safety role, the opportunities presented by new technologies mean that they have now reached a whole new stage in their evolution. “Our intelligent LED matrix headlights illuminate all the relevant aspects of the road environment when driving in the dark – for instance a deer on the left-hand side of the road, a slower vehicle on the road ahead, and a right-of-way sign on the right,” says Plöger. In other words, the vehicle’s lights are increasingly functioning as an assistance system and important safety feature.
Continental is also exploring the future of modern lighting systems. Osram Continental GmbH is a joint venture with lighting experts Osram, in which 1,500 people at sixteen locations are researching intelligent lighting solutions. “We have created a new company that will rethink the future of automotive lighting,” says Dirk Linzmeier, CEO of Osram Continental. Because while many people regard autonomous vehicles and electric mobility as the key current trends in the automotive industry, the automotive lighting market too is caught up in far-reaching change. Osram Continental brings together experts from two different fields to “produce lighting functions for vehicles from a single source”. Osram supplies state-of-the-art lighting technology, while Continental takes care of the electronics and software. The first products to emerge from the development pipeline include the Smartrix modules, which enable glare-free high beam light and dynamic low beam light, and laser headlights with a reach of 600 meters. Another of the joint venture’s projects involves systems that will be able to project warning messages onto the road.
It is clear from the lighting systems featured in the automakers’ latest models that Osram Continental’s strategy reflects the zeitgeist in the automotive industry. Opel’s “IntelliLux LED Matrix headlights” are one example. Their operating principle is simple: The headlights automatically switch to high beam when the car leaves an urban area. If an oncoming vehicle is detected, individual LED elements are switched off so that it is masked from the high beam. This ensures maximum visibility of the road ahead without dazzling oncoming drivers. The headlights comprise sixteen LED elements, providing glare-free high beam illumination for up to 400 meters. The new Ford Focus also features intelligent lighting technology. Since September 2018, it too has been fitted with a glare-free high beam function, as well as a camera-based system for illuminating corners during night driving. A long-range front-facing camera detects road markings and signs in order to read the road ahead. The system combines this information with speed and steering angle data to optimize illumination of the upcoming stretch of road. “The dream is that night driving need be no more difficult than driving in the day,” says Michael Koherr, Lighting Research Engineer at Ford of Europe. “Our latest lighting technologies are part of our plan to make that a reality.”
In 2014, Volkswagen opened its in-house lighting research institute – the Lighting Competence Center in Wolfsburg. Here, future lighting scenarios are explored in a 100-meter-long light tunnel. Dubbed by Volkswagen as the next milestone in intelligent lighting technology, the first system to be developed at the center is now in use. “We developed twelve individually controlled lighting modes for the Touareg’s intelligent lighting system,” says Ricardo Plöger. “The individual LED segments are controlled automatically without any active intervention on behalf of the driver.” Each of the Touareg’s headlights employs a total of eighty controllable LEDs. The technology is further enhanced by the “Night Vision” function, which brings it very close to realizing the imaginary scenario with which this article began. “An infrared camera detects any people within a defined corridor in front of the vehicle and displays them on the cockpit monitor,” says Plöger. “In addition to issuing an acoustic warning, the system briefly flashes a spotlight in the relevant direction in order to draw the driver’s attention to persons who may be at risk either in the road or by the roadside.” The headlights act as an extra pair of eyes that continuously monitor not only the road ahead but the entire surrounding environment, supporting the driver and making for greater safety.
Although the Touareg isn’t yet quite able to project a pedestrian crossing onto the roadway, the engineers at Volkswagen’s Lighting Competence Center are already very close to this vision. “At some point in the future we can expect to see autonomous vehicles on our roads,” says Plöger. “These vehicles will communicate and exchange data with each other, and I am sure that their lights will play a part in this.” After all, if self-driving cars become a reality, we will need new forms of communication to replace the human communication with the surrounding environment that we take for granted on our roads today. This is where micropixel HD headlights come in. Micropixel HD technology crams several thousand LEDs into a tiny space – compared to the 80 or so controllable LEDs per headlight in the new Touareg. Micropixel HD headlights really could project a pedestrian crossing or a deer crossing warning onto the roadway.
Technologies like this are already being tested in research vehicles at the Volkswagen facility in Wolfsburg. Optical Lane Assist, for example, projects the width of the vehicle onto the road ahead to help it safely navigate places where the road narrows. “Features like this obviously require extensive testing,” says Matthias Thamm. “If we want to use vehicle lights to communicate, we will ultimately need to develop a common language that is understood all over the world.” This may not be as hard as it sounds – after all, traffic lights successfully introduced the first global light-based language to our roads as long ago as 1925. And as a visit to the Lighting Competence Center makes clear, several new communication symbols will almost certainly be joining the red, amber and green alphabet before long.