• OSRAM

Laserlight

Professor Lutz Fügener
Lutz Fügener, Professor for Transportation Design at Pforzheim University, is a leading German expert in the field of automotive design.

The headlamps of the BMW i8 and the new BMW 7 Series are standout features thanks to the latest laser technology from OSRAM. Lutz Fügener, Professor for Transportation Design at Pforzheim University, believes that innovative lighting technology will have more and more of an impact on car design as time goes on. In the following interview he talks about lighting trends and using lights for communication.

Is it just a passing fad that headlamps need to look good as well as providing sufficient illumination?

Not at all. Even in the days when the car itself was no longer an unusual sight, it still needed to have visual appeal. That was around 100 years ago. In the luxury market, in particular, a lot of effort has always gone into the design of the headlamps.

What technologies have been tried out over the years?

In the early days people used the technology of the time, which was kerosene light. Since the turn of the 20th century, there has also been electric light; and since the 1960s, halogen lights. At the beginning of the 21st century we began using LED technology—and recently also laser technology. More and more time, energy and money is being invested in the development of headlamps. Headlamps in particular, and lighting technology in general, have never been as important as today.

Why is that?

It's partly due to cultural reasons. In the 1980s, most cars still looked quite neutral. It's different today. Cars can look cute, but they're also allowed to look aggressive – the kind of car you'd want to make way for. In both cases the shape of the headlamps plays an important role.

They give cars a 'face', a piercing expression, a kind of brand signature. But, of course, new technologies are also opening up new dimensions in design. This is being driven by developments in LEDs and lasers.

How?

LEDs have eliminated the paradigm of a light emanating from a single source. Traditionally, light always came from the glowing wire of the bulb. New technologies at their current stage of development are already making it possible to produce light across a surface area and thus to create patterns and designs. These are already widely used in daytime running lights, tail-lamps and brake lights. In tail-lamps, for example, the manufacturers are utilizing the properties of LEDs and OLEDs to emphasize the car's branding by means of a particular design. Headlamps, however, which need to direct their light toward specific targets, need to have optical systems made up of lenses positioned in front of the light sources. This involves a much greater degree of technical complexity. The more advanced these new technologies become, the more it will be possible to harness their properties for design.

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The BMW i8 and Audi R8 LMX were the world's first production vehicles to be fitted with laser headlamps. In 2015 they were followed by the new BMW 7 Series. For the Laser Lights in Cars project, OSRAM and the BMW Group were even nominated for the 2016 Deutscher Zukunftspreis, the German President's Award for Innovation in Science and Technology. What does a design professor have to say about the styling of headlamps?

In the BMW 7 Series, the use of modern laser technology gives the complex headlamp element a clean, focused look. This premium aesthetic is the product of the precision technical components, the clear separation into functional units, and the systematic use of the design scope provided by the technology at this stage in its development. The transparent elements that are suspended in the headlamp are reminiscent of high-quality cut crystal but without the nostalgic effect.

Has the potential of laser technology already been exhausted?

Absolutely not. Generally speaking, laser technology offers a clear improvement in functionality. And it opens up whole new possibilities in terms of styling. I'm fascinated by the interaction between technological innovation and design. This is the pattern that we usually observe: a new technology is built into an older form. Only some time later do people recognize that this new technology also allows for a new design. And that's exactly what's happening now. Laser technology is allowing headlamps to become a lot smaller, for example. It might also be possible that the headlamps of the future will have a different shape and throw light onto the road from only a thin slit. In any case, there is a lot happening in the field of light technology right now.

For example?

Using state-of-the-art lighting concepts it is possible to customize the interior of a vehicle to the needs and preferences of the individual driver and to create a whole new sensation of space. In any case, light as a whole will become increasingly important because of autonomous driving, which will undoubtedly soon become reality.

Why is that?

In the self-driving car, the interior will become a kind of living room. And so people will have entirely different expectations of it, including with regard to the lighting. At the same time, self-driving cars will also require new functions in the exterior design. For example, cars that don't have a driver will need to communicate with pedestrians, for example to let them know they have been recognized by the car and that the car is responding. This communication could be performed using light. We don't yet know what this will look like exactly. Perhaps a smiley face on the radiator grille, perhaps a much more elegant symbol. One thing is certain: We can expect to see many more exciting innovations in the field of light design.

Luminance

The foundations for the main-beam laser headlamps in the BMW i8 and BMW 7 Series were laid by years of work at OSRAM's research laboratories.  Blue laser diodes with a sufficiently high output have been available for some time now. But white light is needed for applications in cars. The experts at OSRAM therefore developed a module in which the laser beams hit a converter that turns blue light into white light. Laser light is far superior to conventional LED light in terms of luminance. This enables the use of small optical components that have a high output, with the main-beam lights in the two BMW models reaching up to 600 meters.

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