All you need to know about your car's headlights
The first electric headlamps were fitted as optional extras way back in 1898. Today, every vehicle is fitted with headlights, whether they be run-of-the-mill halogen lights or ultra-modern laser headlamps. More than just functional, they are part of a vehicle's exterior style, too, and contribute significantly to safety. That said, you should not choose the type of headlight based on looks alone, since each has its advantages and disadvantages. This guide will help you understand how each works and which might be best for your car.
The most common type of headlights in the USA are standard halogen lamps. This is largely because they are very affordable, making mass-production easier. Their installation and maintenance are both simple, which makes replacing them when they inevitably break a lot easier. Like most household lights, they use an incandescent bulb with a tungsten filament, but the surrounding gas is halogen. Halogen allows the tungsten that has evaporated to redeposit onto the filament, meaning longer-lasting bulks.
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) create light by firing an electric current through a semiconducting material. This process causes photons (light particles) to be emitted. These lights are becoming more common as buyers gain more awareness of their impact on the environment. They are ultra-efficient, which means they last a long time, and place very little strain on your battery. Also, due to their small size, they are ideal for light strips, or other smaller applications. However, they cost more than their competition, and trying to fit them to cars that generally come standard with halogen lights can be tricky.
HIDs make use of xenon and argon gas, which is what gives them their superior brightness. Though brighter than most alternatives, they actually run cooler, which increases their lifespan. You will often find these fitted to higher-end cars, since they are a more expensive option. However, the extreme brightness and the blue-ish hue of xenon light bulbs can be unsettling, especially for oncoming traffic.
The latest addition to the lighting lineup, laser headlights are among the most versatile. Due to the compact nature of the technology, it can be customized to just about any size and shape. They emit light by firing lasers into the gas-filled bulb, which triggers a chemical reaction that produces high-quality light. Unfortunately, while not using a lot of energy, they do run extremely hot. This can negatively affect their shelf life, and considering how expensive they are, to begin with, this may contribute to their current scarcity.
In a comparison of halogen headlights vs Xenon vs LED, and compared to Laser tech, each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Here is a quick breakdown of the characteristics for each:
|Cheap||Costly to install on non-standard fit cars||More expensive than LEDs||Limited availability and very pricey|
|Low-intensity emissions||Bright white light,but multiple color options||Can be offensively bright to oncoming motorists||Also smaller than any other form of lamp|
|Relatively short lifespan||Energy efficient with long lifespan||Not quite as long-lasting as LEDs||Even more efficient than LEDs|
|Quick and easy to replace||Not standard on many cars, especially base models||Not as common on most cars as other types of lights||High heat output requires specialized cooling systems|
|Average visibility with warm, yellow light||Great visibility, but can blind oncoming motorists||Very focused beams mean better visibility, very good range||Long range and quick start-up|
|Most common on modern cars||Small and easy to fit into tight space||Overly-focused beams may limit peripheral vision||Restricted to high-beam applications|
As the name suggests, reflector headlights rely on reflection to amplify their output. This is achieved by placing the bulb in an alcove lined with reflective material. In the past, metal was used along with sealed-beam assemblies. This made replacing them quite inconvenient. Luckily, nowadays, the housing is lined with mirrors and the bulb is separate from the bowl, allowing you to replace it separately, and more cheaply.
Projector headlights rely on the same system, but add an extra lens that helps to focus the light beam, magnifying the brightness. Since they are more expensive, they were originally reserved for luxury cars, but they are becoming more commonplace nowadays. So which one is better? Projector beams are brighter and less likely to blind oncoming traffic, and can utilize xenon HID bulbs instead of older halogen units - definitely an upgrade over reflector types.
Here, it largely depends on your driving habits and your budget. For everyday commuters, halogen headlight bulbs normally suffice. However, if you find yourself out in the dark more often than not, then you may want to consider upgrading to xenon car lights. If you have the spare cash, LEDs are a great option, too, and they may actually save you in the long run with less battery maintenance.
For those who prioritize the cool factor regardless of the cost, laser headlights are an absolute must. They easily compete with LEDs and HIDs for brightness, but it's their style and their customizable colors that make them so popular. They do run a bit hot, though, so keep them well-maintained unless you want to spend thousands replacing them when the time comes.
Apart from the choice between reflector or projector headlights, you also get a choice of four different technologies for actually creating the light. These comprise standard halogen bulbs, LED clusters, HID/xenon headlights, and laser emissions systems.
The average halogen light bulb will only last for around 2,000 hrs. This means you will replace it sooner than you would an alternative. On the plus side, halogen car lights are quite cheap to replace.
Both setups result in very bright light beams, which makes them ideal for nighttime driving. However, LED car lights do not run as hot or use up as much energy. They also do not result in a blue-like glow, which can be off-putting for some motorists. Lastly, LED lights reach full intensity immediately, while HIDs get progressively brighter over the first few seconds, until they have fully excited the gas within the lamps.
If you are doing a halogen to LED headlight conversion, this should be fine. However, if you are trying to upgrade from HID to LED, it's a little more complicated. The base systems are incompatible, and you will most likely have to replace the entire front lights assembly in the process.
There are quite a few lighting service providers, both OEM and aftermarket. Just a few of the names worth mentioning in the US are Luma, Anzo, Vision and Philips. If you are going to do a lot of late-night driving, LEDs are recommended, with HIDs if you have the cash to spend. You may want to consider purchasing a car model or trim that includes foglights, too, if this is the case.