BACK TO IN THE KNOW

A Complete Guide To Car Headlights

Guide to Car Headlights
iKnowAuto Staff
It used to be that the only thing you noticed about car headlights was their shape and location. That’s still an important consideration today, but in 1993 BMW added a new dimension when they introduced the first HID headlamp followed a decade later by Audi producing the first LED headlight. Up until that time, headlights were something of a commodity. For nearly 40 years headlamps were illuminated by halogen bulbs that put out about 1000 lumens of comfortable yellow light. Then along come the Germans with white headlights and three times the lumens.
JAN 01, 2019

The fact is, there have been some serious advances in car headlights and other automotive lighting but have generally gone mostly unnoticed by the general public. For example, do you really know what the difference is between HID headlights and standard lights? How about projector beams? Do you know what COB means? Do you think Xenon is the villain in the latest superhero film? Do you think CCFL and SMD are failed sports leagues? Headlights vs. fog lights?

Those terms all have something to do with automotive lighting. But aside from a growing following of gearheads looking for cool modifications, not many people know what they are. Here is our easy to understand guide to car headlights.

2014 Toyota Avalon with a Quadrabeam Headlamp (PowerBulbs)

HID – High-Intensity Discharge

Unlike old halogen lamps that use a filament, HID lamps are arc lights. Electricity “arcs” between two electrodes heating and exciting the photons in the Xenon gas which is encapsulated in the bulb. Because the HID heats using arcing instead of a steady electrical supply required by halogen, the HID uses less energy, puts less stress on the alternator, runs significantly cooler, and lasts more than twice as long as a halogen bulb. They are becoming common on new vehicles and the cost of aftermarket retrofits has dropped dramatically making them a favorite of modifiers.

BMW 7 Series(PowerBulbs)

Projector Beam Headlights

These car headlights are not so much about the source of the light, but the direction they face. There are both HID and halogen bulbs used in projector headlights. The bulbs face backward and illuminate the reflective case of the headlight to cast a brighter, more focused and more uniformly lit spot. Projector-beam headlights are fairly common on newer cars and trucks.

Chevy Camaro with Non-RS Oracle Halo Kit (Round Style)

Halo Headlights

Now we’re getting into a cool design without much regard for performance. Halo headlights are thin, tubes that circle the headlight making the whole assembly resemble an eye. They can come in a variety of colors. They can change colors. They can be multi-colored. It all depends on the source of light in the halo tube. Right now, no matter the flavor, few actually put out useful, car guiding light. They are strictly used to enhance the cool factor of your ride.

CCFL – Cold Cathode Fluorescent Light

CCFL is an old technology (think neon beer signs behind a bar). Used as a halo, they put out a smooth glow that a lot of people like as opposed to a bunch of individual lights like LED halos. The downside is CCFL lighting is not very bright and is not really visible in daylight situations. At night, however, the CCFL halo (or other application) is as eye-catching as that Budweiser sign in your favorite pub. CCFL is the least expensive and most widely used variety of halo treatments and there are plenty of choices from aftermarket shops.

2017 BMW 540i

LED – Light Emitting Diode

 “A light-emitting diode is a semiconductor light source that emits light when current flows through it. When a suitable current is applied to the leads, electrons are able to recombine with electron holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of photons. This effect is called electroluminescence.” Here’s the takeaway. LED lights are individual diodes. Even if you cram them closely together you will still be able to discern individual lights and some people aren’t crazy about that look. That said, they are incredibly bright and easily visible during the day. Think newer Cadillac running lights. If you spot a halo during the day you are looking at either an LED or Plasma light source. Since the ring is made up of individual lights, an SMD (Surface Mounted Diode) or COB ( Chip on Board) can include diodes that emit different colors allowing you to change the color of your halo at the touch of a switch or remote.

PLASMA

What if you want a super bright light like LED and a solid glow of light like CCFL? The answer is Plasma halo rings. This is the latest in halo technology and typically is the priciest, but the results are stunning. Because it is a single light source, it can’t change colors on demand like LED diodes. Plasma does come in a choice of colors though. If you opt to go in that direction, you want to check with your state’s DMV first because not all colors are allowed to be displayed on moving vehicles.

That's Our Guide to Car Headlights

Lighting has come a long way. We’ve focused on halo lights but that’s just one of a slug of newer lighting applications. Ambient lighting in the cabin, light bars for trucks and 4x4a, even ground effect lighting for under your rude.

Today’s lighting uses less energy, burns cooler, and lasts far longer than previous halogen applications. And now that you know the basics, you’re ready to start thinking about adding these lights to your chariot.