Audi prides itself on exterior lighting that sets new standards for safety and aesthetics.
Innovative exterior lighting has become a defining characteristic of Audi models, living up to the brand's 'Vorsprung durch Technik' slogan (meaning advancement or progress through technology). With safety at the core, Audi's lighting technologies also endow its cars with a unique, high-tech aesthetic.
At the recent launch of the facelifted Audi Q8 and SQ8 - we got to drive the more powerful SQ8 - we sat down with Paul Stas, responsible for technical development within Audi's exterior lighting department. He delved into how an idea morphs into the final, dazzling product that customers get to experience for the first time on the showroom floor, specifically with regard to the latest Q8.
With this new SUV, Audi has once again moved the lighting goalposts. The digitalization of lighting also opens up exciting possibilities for personalization and safety in the near future.
Audis, especially models from the 2000s onward, have significantly progressed the art of vehicle lighting design. In 2008, the R8 became the first production car to feature all-LED headlights. These high-intensity diodes were used for low beams, high beams, daytime running lights, and indicators, and their visual theater contributed to the first-generation R8 becoming a design icon.
"With light, you can tell a lot of stories," says Stas when asked why lighting is so important for the brand. "Audi stands for perfect design, sporty engines, and progressive design. We have the same ideas [in the lighting department]. It's an honor to combine this and bring it into the cars."
The third-generation A8 full-size luxury sedan introduced another key Audi lighting technology in 2013. It was the first worldwide series production car with digitally controlled, full-LED, glare-free adaptive high beams, called Matrix LEDs. Not only did these lights add some pizzazz to the conservative A8's lines, but the 25 individual light-emitting diodes per unit of the high beams could switch on and off independently based on the situation.
That A8's lighting provides the best possible illumination while reacting precisely to other road users so as not to blind them - a safer solution whether you're the driver of the A8 or not.
"The [starting point] for lighting was mainly for safety [at night]," says Stas. "For us, the main focus is always safety. We are then perfectly trying to combine this with different features for the customer, but safety is always the highest priority. If you have the best of the safety combined with the best of aesthetics, then it's an Audi."
Another R8, the R8 LMX, became the first production car in the world with laser high beams. These lights have twice the range of an all-LED headlight, with each module having four high-power laser diodes. The laser spot activates at speeds of 37.3 mph and above, and its color temperature of 5,500 Kelvin helps to prevent eye fatigue when driving at night.
Dynamic, sweeping indicators have become another Audi staple, and the Q4 e-tron more recently introduced an advancement in lighting that could set the tone for the next phase of lighting design.
"The Q4 was actually the first one with the signature change, but it changes inside the positioning light, and the daytime running light was one line," says Stas. "What we tried to do is improve even further [on upcoming projects]. The Q8 is a perfect example where the complete daytime running light itself changes, so the face of the car changes. It's still an Audi design, but you can individualize it as you like."
This ability to change lighting signatures can have a considerable effect on the visual appearance of a car, changing its personality at the touch of a button. Q8 customers can choose between four different lighting designs via the touchscreen interface as easily as you'd choose your desired fan speed or the layout of the digital gauge cluster. This simplicity does not apply to the challenging conceptualization, design, and approval process, though.
Just as engineers spend months on the road and track fine-tuning every element of a car's chassis and powertrain, so too does Audi's lighting team optimize new lighting designs.
While fanciful interior lighting delights buyers on the showroom floor and captures your attention in a second or two, it takes a long time - years, even - for Stas and his team to make the designers' wishes technically feasible. He explained that changing the headlight signatures is actually an idea several years old, but it takes time to innovate, create a patent, and further develop the idea.
In the case of the Q8, a desire was expressed to move the older daytime running lights higher up below the hood, increasing the perception of width.
"First, when you start with an idea, it means the colleagues from the project came to us and say, 'Okay, we need something new, we need to improve, we need to have a new design,' and then we were talking about this, what could fit inside [the headlight]," says Stas. "What's our idea of the new Q8? So, this was the beginning. Then, of course, the colleagues from the design [department] start to work."
With the basic design parameters established, Stas and his team decide which of the various Audi lighting modules to use, including the HD Matrix and laser technologies, and how to combine it with the "sharp, progressive" look of the facelifted Q8.
From the chosen technologies, the team creates the first sketches, and when simulations return good results and meet Audi's exceedingly high standards, serial production starts.
"We [wait] for the first parts, and when you hold the first parts in your hand, the next job starts - to make the parts ready for Audi customers, to bring the best quality into the parts," says Stas.
Each project has its own complexity, so timelines are difficult to establish.
"We are talking about some years," says Stas when asked how long a new headlight design and technology can take to perfect. "I cannot tell you the exact timeline. This is dependent on the model, the technique, and overall project."
Stas recalls the A5's headlight design as a particularly rewarding project and one of his favorites. The top model has Matrix LEDs with laser light, including a lower segment with an X-shaped metal aperture and exposed blue light guide, in what Stas refers to as a "complex environment."
It was a difficult design to get right, and Audi could easily have chosen something simpler, but it's another detail that sets the A5 apart.
Presently, customers can choose from four different lighting signatures for the latest Audi Q8. However, this is just the first phase of customization, and we asked Stas what the potential is for greater lighting personalization on future models.
"There is high potential in this. We believe in this digitalization [of lighting], not only in the front but also in the back with digital OLEDs. We are working really hard to push it to the next level."
The Q6 e-tron, expected in the USA in 2024 or 2025, will already improve on the Q8's advances in lighting.
"On the Q6 e-tron, we [already have next-level digital OLEDs] with a lot more segments than the Q8," says Stas. "The idea is to extend the safety features. The Q8 already has proximity indication. In the next cars, for example, if [some hazard] appears on the road, we can use the digital OLEDs to make a [warning triangle]."
Proximity indication allows the Q8 to increase the brightness and surface area of the vehicle's taillights if an approaching car is sensed. The brighter and larger the lights, the greater the chance of alerting someone who may not be paying full attention to the road.
The ability to create more defined symbols will be even more of a game-changer. Not only will drivers in following cars know that there's an impending hazard, but they'll be able to tell precisely what that hazard is. Audi says lighting digitalization will continue offering new functions, including enhanced communication with the outside world and broadened customization.
"We are only at the beginning of digitalization," says Stas.