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What happens to automotive lighting with the rise of autonomous vehicles?

Updated: Jul 18, 2019



Automotive lighting has been a major component of automotive safety for a long time. Statistics suggest that a majority of accidents are caused in the night which makes good lighting an important feature. While the halogen front lamps have remained the mainstay of lighting for long, the emergence of LEDs has helped transform the automotive lighting industry. The cost of LEDs has gone down every year and they are energy efficient. They are also much easily electronically controlled. Adaptive high beams (ADBs) are already being used in a variety of high-end vehicles along with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). The lights are digitally actuated and direction of beam changed using micro mirrors.


Lighting has even become a style component of the cars apart from just the safety aspects. But, what does autonomous driving entail for automotive lighting whose entire purpose is to have a better vision for human drivers in the night? Automotive tier-1 companies are reimaging automotive lighting and its use cases for the autonomous future. There has been a flurry of announcements and prototypes being presented in CES for the last two years. One important point that is being focused on is the use of lighting for communication with other vehicles or pedestrians. Lighting as a communication medium can help in solving traffic issues as well as increasing the safety of pedestrians.


In CES 2019, Hyundai Mobis unveiled its latest concept of communication lighting. It had an ‘Indicating Lighting Zone’ to indicate if the vehicle is in self-driving mode and a ‘Communication Lighting Zone’ that uses LEDs and digital panels to project signs on the road like turning signals, danger, etc. The concept integrates Mobis’ ADAS solution which allows detection of pedestrians even located 450 feet away and flashes red warning signals. The solution tries to address accidents similar to the Uber self-driving test vehicle accident which caused the death of a woman in 2018. Volkswagen had showcased a similar concept of using HD headlamps to safely drive shapes and test on the road as indications for other actors on the road. A few other automotive majors had also talked about similar ideas but at a smaller scale. Lighting becoming a communication medium between the car and its surroundings on the road, seems to be the direction which the major automotive players are taking.


The ADBs take camera inputs for the Light control unit (LCU) to intelligently turn the focus of the beam depending on the movement of the car. With the integration with ADAS, the safety application becomes much more reliable with the camera based ADAS solutions that are currently available. But, in the case of autonomous vehicles that has Lidars, radars integrated, would these specific lights matter? Or would the future headlight space be occupied by vision sensors like radars, lidars, etc.? It doesn’t seem far-fetched that lighting and vision sensor systems have to integrate to have a completely automated perception and response systems for autonomous vehicles. It is likely that the camera will still be an important element of the vision system which requires proper lighting for its operation. In the future, however, lighting may not be just a luminating medium but also a way to communicate with the surrounding. The present-day headlight positions are likely to be transitioned into the major area for vision systems for autonomous cars of the future.


A flurry of activity is seen by the automotive lighting majors like Hella, Osram, Koito, and others to launch new concepts of lighting for the autonomous futures. Osram formed a JV with Continental in November 2018 to focus on new aspects of lighting and sensing for automobiles. Koito in an interesting move, partnered with Reality AI, a startup focused on sensors and signals to provide an embedded AI solution, to develop a new ADB headlight concept where the high beam is perpetually actuated until oncoming traffic is detected. It had also earlier announced a partnership with the Lidar startup Quanergy to develop an integrated headlight + lidar concept. The focus of acquisitions in the automotive lighting space in the last few years has also been evident. LG Electronics acquired ZKW as a step in this direction.


Other tier-1 manufacturers also want a piece of the market. For example, Valeo acquired a majority stake in Ichikoh, a Japanese company focused on automotive lighting. Magna has also acquired Olsa which operates in a similar domain. A variety of other tier-2s and tier-3s are also announcing products in this domain. It seems that the larger tier-1s want to expand their business offerings to offer a complete solution for autonomous cars to help consolidate their market share. The future integration of lighting and vision systems for both signaling and as an input for decision making of the control systems seems inevitable now.

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Image Courtesy : www.volkswagen.com