It's a brave new world for designers, and they're taking full advantage of it.
There is no better time in history to be a car designer. In addition to the complex panels you can create for the body and multitudes of materials and styles for the cabin, headlights are doing things that they've never done before. For 100 years it was "two buckets with either a bulb or a projector," but they're now one of the most important parts of vehicle design.
"Lighting is now an identity," said Brad Arnold, design manager at Hyundai, who is doing some of the coolest stuff in the business with its Tucson SUV and Santa Cruz pickup. "They used to be anthropomorphized, with city cars wearing a happy face and sports cars wearing an angrier face. But now we're blurring the zones between grille and headlight."
The headlights were the eyes, the grille was traditionally the mouth. But with EVs coming on the scene, automakers don't need grilles. Or at least, don't need them to be as prominent. Even on non-EVs, automakers can now make the daytime running lights or headlights look like chrome when they're turned off, which frees the designers to stretch their creative legs with wild lighting signatures. But they still must serve their purpose.
"You need to see that this is a massive truck and it's taking a turn," said Samir Datta from the GMC Hummer EV lighting team. "It's the face of the truck, but it has to meet stringent legal requirements. There's a limitation to how bright signature lights can be, and the corners lamps have to do the heavy lifting: turn lamps, main beams, charging level."
For the Hummer's lighting, GMC designers brought a ton of options to the table. They saw the full-width lightbar was coming back in style, but they still needed to keep the iconic six-slot grille. "It should look cool, it should look new, but it should be readable for a long way away," said Datta. "People started liking the bar, it started resonating with them."
"Careful prototypes get us a decent idea what they'll look like and how light flows. We like to be about 90% correct," said Datta. Like today's tech companies, Hummer needs to "fail fast and learn quick."
GMC wanted the Hummer lights to be simple, and they were designed to look and feel like one giant lamp. But they're also modular, meaning if an M goes out for some reason, you can just replace that one piece. But as you step back, you can't see the breaks in the beam.
It's the new tech that's making all of this possible. Hummer uses about a quarter-million tiny diamond-shaped optics to create the shapes and animations they need. Audi has its laser light matrix beams and Hyundai is using what it calls pixel lights. To imagine that, just think of a piece of graph paper on the wall. Designers just fill in which squares need lights and which ones don't, which makes more complex shapes possible. It also looks cool.
Super lights for a super truck, with walk up animation, lights to show charging status and the same bar used for the turn signal," said Datta. "What's more bling than chrome? Crystal and diamond light."
These lighting signatures may soon be the main character marker of vehicle, over both the grille and the badge (though those are starting to get their own lights too). Some makers just put the same corporate face on every vehicle. And sometimes that works, but there are other ways to differentiate a brand.
"We don't want a Russian nesting doll of corporate faces. They should be more like chess pieces," said Arnold. "It's important to have an individual identity but have some connection."
If you look at Hyundai's current lineup there's definitely a connection, but it's just the wildness of the lights. For now, that works. And we'll say here that in general, Hyundai designers are doing some of the best work on the market.
Not only do these new signatures look cool and differentiate the brands, but they're also keeping us safer. Audi's adaptive beams can highlight road signs or roaming animals. You can now see 100 feet in front of your vehicle as opposed to 30 feet in the past. And you can do it without blinding other drivers.
"It's now easier to meet the legal requirements," said Dean Carbis, design chief of exterior components and 21-year veteran of Ford. "And we need the better lights to get better safety rating." But the company wants to do more.
"We get to use so much more imagination, but we have to be more clever," said Carbis. "We'd like to put a lot more lights, more personality in the front face. But we also need to differentiate from everyone else. When someone comes out with a new signature, everyone else sees it and it pushes them to go farther."
Part of Ford's plan with that is to make the lighting signature more personable to its owners. "Welcome animation allows driver to interact with the car as part of the family. It needs to be noticed as BEV, but also Ford BEV." But the company is not yet fully in on all cars having full-width light bars.
"Rivian and Tesla set the tone for what a BEV could be. They need to be fresh modern and tech allows us to do this. But the lightbar look may be fleeting as now people have seen it before, it's not as new and different," said Carbis. "We're seeing new interpretations coming from China and they're not always BEVs."
Still, all the designers we talked to thought this was the best time to be in the business. "Being a designer, we always look for something new. It has to have modern technology, they all have to look and feel modern," said GMC's Datta. "It's like a Lego box, there are so many things to play with, but it has to follow the rules, be tested and validated. There's still so much to learn."
"It's all forcing evolution," said Arnold from Hyundai. "Lights are now cheaper and more durable. There are more safety features, more freedom, more affordable vehicles."
That's something we can all get behind.