Modern car buyers can purchase normal passenger cars that offer a bewildering array of headlights.
These range from fancy, almost artsy headlights that suggest feminine, masculine, even animal features to aggressively retro samples that determinedly remain simplistic and circular.
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Regardless of style, today’s headlights come with varying degrees of illumination, ranging from sufficient to the frankly offensively bright.
Exterior lights in cars
When I began writing this article and looked out into the driveway at my car, I was struck by the number of light holders on display. In all, I could see eight types of holders:
- Backup lights
- Brake lights
- Daytime driving lights (okay, full disclosure, my 2019 Jag doesn’t have these, but I see them come on in my neighbors’ Hyundai)
- Fog lights
- Parking lights
Of these, I wondered, why is it that we call the big lights at the front of the vehicle ‘head’ lights? Which of these lights would I rather do without, I pondered. As night had fallen, I decided on the spur of the moment to conduct an ad hoc experiment.
Driving without headlights is a mad experiment
Dashing out to the car, I took it for a short drive to a business park in the countryside not too far away from where I live. It is one I know well enough to have a pretty good idea that would be deserted at this time of the day.
Once there, I turned off my headlights to see how comfortable I was driving around at some speed (about 40 miles per hour) on its winding country roads.
The Jag automatically keeps driving lights on, so I couldn’t go completely dark, but in pretty short order, on a moonless night–or one in which the moon was firmly hidden behind clouds.
I quickly came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t careful, I’d get myself into a situation in which the best outcome was I’d have a lot of uncomfortable questions to answer to curious cops while I lay in a hospital bed wondering what my health insurance was going to say.
I know you think what I did was dumb–and it was–but I did satisfy myself that headlights are more than a safety device, as, for instance, are brake lights and blinkers.
Headlights aren’t just a good idea; they’re a cotton-pickin’ necessity. But you knew that, right?
A short history of headlights
In cars, headlights, or as some might name them, ‘headlamps,’ are the main source of forward-facing light that illuminates the road ahead. Back when cars were invented, people drove around in what was then thought of as ‘horseless carriages’ without any lights.
However, in extremely short order, like me and my silly experiment, folks soon realized that seeing where they were going in the dark was a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons, such as ‘staying alive.’
Thus, the first headlights made their early appearance in the 1880s.
Straightaway, engineers ran into the limitations of the technologies of the day. Electricity was still a few years away, so the early “headlamps,” as they were universally called in those days, were acetylene lamps.
Those headlamps contained a small flame fuelled by acetylene, but they weren’t particularly robust in withstanding wind and rain.
By 1898, electricity had sufficiently developed to become viable as a source of energy for car headlamps, and their increasing appearance on cars meant a change in terminology from ‘headlamp’ to ‘headlight.’
As the 1900s rolled around, illuminators that might be called ‘electric headlights’ had become mainstream, and most new cars sported them. However, it was only in 1912 that Cadillac began selling cars with what we’d consider proper electric headlights.
A year later, Henry Ford started mass production of the Model T, which created the modern automobile industry, car electric-headlights and all.
With the gradual standardization of electric headlights came many innovations we now take for granted. For example, 1915 saw the first low beam/high beam dipping headlights.
However, astonishingly, even perhaps ‘horrifically’ (okay, that’s hyperbole, but still!), the driver had to get out of the vehicle to switch from high to low beam and vice versa!
It wasn’t until the absurdity of such a system became blindingly self-evident that manufacturers took pity on drivers and invented the modern switch that allowed drivers to flip between beams from inside the cabin.
The 1940s saw the advent of headlights we’re familiar with today with the production of sealed round beam headlights.
Manufacturers loved these because they were sealed, bulbs couldn’t be replaced, and the entire headlight had to be replaced.
The term ‘planned obsolescence’ hadn’t yet been coined because folks were still unaware of the greed of manufacturers. Thus, for a while at least, it was every shyster manufacturer for himself in terms of headlights.
The last innovation of the 20th century was the development of clear, aerodynamic headlights, which were all the rage in Europe.
It was a completely different story in America, however, with manufacturers putting up determined resistance until modernity overtook larceny, or indolence, or indifference, individually or in combination–it’s difficult to work out which–and in 1983, US car buyers finally got the groovy headlights Europeans had been enjoying for decades.
In the intervening years between the 40s and 1982, manufacturers had to design different front ends for the US and European markets.
In what I think was a moment of pure brilliance, some US car manufacturers invented pop-up headlights. This allowed them to conform to US standards or apply European-style headlights without necessitating two rigid designs for their cars.
It also gave their automobiles that undeniable va-va-voom that pop-up headlights seem to confer.
Types of headlights – housings
This is where it gets technical, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Essentially, there are three types of headlights if one goes by their housing and assembly details.
Before we get started, just to be clear, housings are the containers that house the bulb, while ‘assemblies’ are the entire kit and caboodle, housing + light bulb.
Basically, there are two types of housings, reflectors, and projectors. (There are also H4 Conversions, but these are not truly a new type of housing, but a kind of kit to allow switching between reflectors and projectors.)
1. Reflector-type headlights
Reflector-type headlights go back all the way to 1937 when the government pushed for a standardized headlight system all American vehicles could use.
Manufacturers came up with the final format of reflectors in 1939, called the ‘sealed beam headlight’ because, as explained earlier, it wasn’t possible to replace the bulb in these assemblies.
The government gave the new headlights its blessing and in 1940 passed the relevant laws requiring all US vehicles thenceforth to employ reflector headlights.
Reflectors held sway in America for donkey years, or to be precise, until 1985 when at last US citizens could get their mitts on headlights other parts of the world had enjoyed for decades.
If I seem to disparage reflector headlights, it’s because I am. The question is, what’s the matter with them?
Reflections on reflector headlights
Of the numerous problems that reflector headlights present, perhaps the most invidious is that these are single-piece assemblies. If the bulb burns out, it’s goodbye, sayonara, pip pip, and toodle loo to the entire assembly.
Another difficulty with reflectors is that they tend to emit lower-intensity light, yet paradoxically, they tend to shine more directly into the eyes of the drivers of oncoming vehicles, neatly and unapologetically blinding them.
Reflectors illuminate more ambient space around the car rather than concentrate on the road directly ahead. Fantastic for sightseeing, perhaps, but kind of crummy for driving safely.
That said, it’s not all bad news with reflectors. When it comes to strength and durability, reflectors are without parallel.
Reflectors: where they’ve been and where they’re at
By now, I’ve made it clear that reflectors were all that we had available to us in the States until 1985.
They consist of a bulb encased in a steel bowl, the insides of which are coated with highly reflective materials to reflect all the light emitted by the bulb forward (hence the name ‘reflectors’).
This basic layout has more or less remained unchanged since inception for several decades. However, modifications and advancements came along little by little to improve the situation.
The first of these enhancements was the introduction of mirrors inside the steel bowl.
This new feature allowed manufacturers to focus headlights’ beams better using those same mirrors, meaning the necessity to fix a lens to housings had evaporated.
With that innovation, finally, bulbs could be replaced, and there was no longer a need to seal assemblies. In short, it was the death of the sealed-beam headlight.
Increasingly, projector headlights take over from reflectors, but it is unlikely that reflectors will disappear completely. For one thing, reflectors are cheaper than projectors, and we all know how industry big wigs love a saving.
For another, reflectors are smaller for the same size bulbs, giving the manufacturer more space to play with beneath the hood, where space is often at a premium.
2. Projector-type headlights
These headlights are an evolution of the reflector-type, not some sort of revolution. Projectors use a series of advanced reflective surfaces together with a magnifying lens.
The lens helps manage the beam’s focus and significantly increases its perceived brightness, since more of the beam is concentrated in a smaller area.
Headlights of this kind have a cut-off shield that directs the emitted beam downwards towards the road. This refocusing is further helped by the headlight’s reflective surfaces, which also help angle the emitted beam downwards.
Those who have had the pleasure of driving a vehicle with these headlights installed will doubtless have noticed the rays have sharp cut-offs, helping to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-vehicular road users from being blinded by their glare.
Physically, projectors are undeniably the prettier option. They look more modern, seem sophisticated, and lend the host car an air of superior technology.
Furthermore, projectors are designed from the ground up as multi-part housings, so when a bulb goes kaput, it doesn’t mean having to throw out the entire assembly.
Projectors: where they’ve been and where they’re at
Compared to reflectors, projectors haven’t been around for long, having entered the market in the early 80s as offerings with luxury vehicles.
However, they came into their own in the early noughties (00s), included in standard cars that were more affordable for the masses.
Since then, projectors have been quietly growing in popularity to the point where reflectors are beginning to stand out as quite passé.
Projectors are brighter than reflectors; visibly, noticeably, and significantly so. Even though they are brighter, they don’t blind other direct and incidental road users due to a combination of being better directed down at the road and restrictions by cut-offs.
Projectors emit more light than reflectors because the latter can have dark spots as a matter of their nature.
Funnily, bulbs in reflectors get in their own way, leading to one or more dark spots, which are clearly visible if you pay attention to the beam any reflector emits.
Certain powerful bulbs can be used only in projectors. If used in reflectors, they’d blind oncoming traffic with frightening ease.
There are four headlight bulbs, regardless of brand, make, or model. These are LED, Laser, Halogen, and HID/Xenon bulbs.
LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. LEDs have been around for a while too. Not as long as halogens, of course, but they’ve still seen some track.
However, it wasn’t until the turn of the last century that LEDs made an appearance in cars, a response to the car industry’s search for greater efficiency in all aspects of running a car.
LEDs use direct current, which is so much easier on batteries and engines, and one reason why a good portion of new cars use DLRs (Daytime Running Lights) based on LED technology.
Add to that, benefits like an expected lifespan of between 10,00 and 50,000 hours as well as an output of between 2,000 and 4,000 lumens, and the advantages of LED headlights speak for themselves.
Any downsides to LED lights? Yes, of course–cost.
These babies aren’t cheap, and buyers will have to dig a little deeper into their pockets to purchase them, but the upside is that, once bought, consumers have every right to expect them to last for the duration of the lifetime of the car barring accidental damage.
This is the future! Probably. It was only late last November in 2021 that President Biden finally signed the bill removing the ban on laser headlights, so as I write this article, only three months have since passed.
That same bill simultaneously lifted the prohibition on adaptive headlights, a fact I’m sure will astound and dismay consumers the world over who have enjoyed such amenities for years.
The oldest bulb type on the market, halogens are the cheapest to buy. Although they last longest, that isn’t a huge problem because these bulbs are relatively inexpensive. To put it briefly, halogens are cheap and cheerful. However…
Halogens emit the least amount of light of any headlamp light bulb, averaging around 700 and 1,200 lumens for low and high beams, respectively.
4. HID/Xenon bulbs
These technological marvels emit light from a plasma generated by arcing an electrical current between two poles inside a chamber filled with a combination of vaporized salt and xenon gas.
Xenons are the blue-tinted headlights that, to me, dully and melancholically pass me by. It’s a personal opinion, but they seem to lack the charisma and joie de vivre of LEDs.
These are pretty powerful bulbs, pumping out between 2.400 and 3.400 lumens, but they seem to throw in the towel around the 2,000-hour mark, which is a bit on the low side for my tastes.
True, they don’t cost as much as LED headlights, but it is also true that they cost more than halogens. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but these boys just don’t float my boat.