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The development of headlights: Volkswagen Group publishes ‘A History Of Light’

The invention of the headlamp literally brought light into darkness: a short journey through time from the beginnings of the first electrical lighting systems to modern lighting scenarios.

Where there is a lot of light … there is above all a lot of know-how and development work hidden behind it. From the first headlamp models in the pioneering days of the automotive industry to the automotive enlightenment of the future, light years of development have taken place at the Volkswagen Group. We present the most important models.


The first great leap was made at the beginning of the 20th century with the change from candlelight to petroleum. However, significant progress was made with the use of carbide lamps, which made it possible to use cars at night – even if the light did not reach more than a few meters. However, the use of carbide lamps was associated with difficulties, and new lighting was constantly required. In addition, the use was not entirely without danger, as it meant a constant risk of fire.


In 1913, a real revolution took place: Bosch used a generator to bring electricity to cars, thus operating the world’s first electric headlight. From 1936, the Bilux light then illuminated the streets. For the first time, a bulb with two filaments was located in the reflector of the headlamp, and two beams of light of different brightness made it possible to see further. This technology was now standard until the 1970s. From today’s point of view, the light output of the Beetle, for example, was not particularly enlightening due to the 6-volt electrical system.


Good prospects from 1969 onwards: this was the year in which the halogen light made its entry into the Group. The filling with halogen gas guaranteed an almost uniformly high radiance throughout the entire service life, because unlike conventional incandescent lamps, no vaporized metal was deposited on the glass bulb by the filament.

From 1971, the luminosity was doubled again: the more powerful H4 headlamps introduced had halogen technology for low and high beam. Within a very short time, the H4 light was also used in the small car segment.


1991 became a highlight with the introduction of the xenon light thanks to illuminating gas. Xenon and metal salts served as light sources in the quartz glass bodies, while electronic ballasts generated arcs of light. Prior to this, headlights with gas discharge technology were only used to illuminate large buildings and halls. Bi-xenon technology followed eight years later. From then on, high beam also worked by gas discharge.


In 2007, Volkswagen Group launched the first models with LED lights on the market. In increasingly more model series, these powerful headlights replaced the xenon systems. They only required around a quarter of the energy of H4 lamps. And in the future, they should only require half the energy consumed by current xenon lamps. In addition, they are durable and have a color temperature close to that of daylight. The LED low beam and high beam shine into the dark with a daylight white color temperature, making driving more relaxed and safer.


Audi, in particular, made it possible for laser technology to find its way into the headlights of the car. In 2014, laser headlights in matrix LED headlights were presented in the Audi R18 e-tron quattro at the Le Mans 24 Hours race. Laser light now enabled ideal light distribution in every situation. In addition, the laser generator is located outside the respective housing in the engine compartment, which results in a longer range.


OLED stands for organic light-emitting diodes, which are used in smartphone displays, for example. With Audi OLED Swarm technology, the brand presented a study as early ago as 2013, which makes it possible to replace conventional headlight functions with an integrated monitor at the rear. The material is applied very thinly to the body. When an electrical voltage is then generated, the molecules emit photons – and the surface lights up. Because of their transparency, individual OLEDs can be placed one behind the other to mix colors. A swarm of luminous particles, for example, elegantly depicts the turning of the car at the rear. The swarm is also intended to indicate the speed of the car and the strength of the braking process.

Light scenarios will be the reality of the future

The Group is intensively developing the light of the future in its Lighting Competence Center. And it thinks ahead. New technologies make Optical Lean Assist functions possible for example, in which light projects the width of the lane onto the road – through narrow construction sites and similar traffic situations. This significantly increases safety – especially at night. Or Dynamic Light Assist: this feature, which is already offered in many series model vehicles, allows the driver to always drive in high beam mode. If another vehicle or another road user approaches, the headlights automatically dim in milliseconds.

This technology was already introduced in the Volkswagen Touareg in 2010 and is now also available in the Volkswagen Passat and the Golf.

Interesting, especially for new drivers: New assistance functions such as Optical Park Assist, which works with microlenses, will make maneuvering in tight parking spaces and car parks easier and safer. All these examples show that light is not the same as light and will remain a major innovation driver in modern vehicles.

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‘Lux Nova’ by Siiku lets the light shine out

Intermediate Lighting Designer @ The Flaming Beacon, Melbourne