Lighting cars by design

  • Article by: PHIL PATTON
  • New York Times
  • November 29, 2012 - 4:05 PM

Lighting is the stuff of drama, in cars as well as on stage.

More and more, dramatic lighting seeps from under dashboards and seats or gives a glow to the door sills. The 2013 Cadillac XTS has illuminated exterior door handles. A glowing ring surrounds the recharging port of the Ford Focus Electric. Open the door of a new Ford Mustang or Range Rover Evoque at night and "puddle lamps" project the maker's logo on the ground, like the Bat Signal beamed onto clouds.

Lighting is growing in its role as the new face of auto style and branding; manufacturers are shaping headlights to help establish a signature for their brands, much as grilles' shapes have in the past. The main headlamps and high beams, daytime running lights and turn signals have become increasingly complex parts of cars' faces.

As new technologies arrive, designers say, lighting more and more plays the stylistic role once performed by chrome and glass.

In presentations at auto shows and in online videos, the Mercedes-Benz design chief, Gorden Wagener, described the headlight of the Concept Style Coupe, first shown in Beijing in 2012. "For us the light is always based on something human, the eye," he said. "The brow is the daytime light, and the lid moves up for the brights."

A pioneer in LEDs

Audi was a pioneer in bringing LEDs -- light emitting diodes, a more efficient and longer lasting replacement for conventional bulbs -- to automotive lighting and in using them as a styling element. Audi's lighting design, however, is unabashedly mechanical in its style. "Our slogan is 'progress through technology,'" said Cesar Muntada, an Audi exterior designer who works on lighting, "so the key to all Audi design is giving the purest expression of that technology.

"We want an Audi to be as recognizable at night as it is during the day," Muntada said in an interview. "We always use the system that performs the best. We have taken something functional and made it an aesthetic."

Audi first used LEDs in daytime running lights, arrayed in a simple bar of distinct lamps. Now, more sophisticated designs distinguish Audi models. In the latest generation of Audi headlights, low- and high-beam LEDs are separated, and the running light doubles as turn indicator.

'We let the headlamps do the talking'

In contrast to Audi's modernist form-follows-function approach, Lincoln's designers are looking for less complex light designs.

Lincoln's theme these days is elegant simplicity, said Solomon Song, chief exterior designer of the 2013 MKZ midsize sedan. The car's strikingly thin headlights follow that idea. "If you look at a lot of cars on the road today, their headlights are getting bigger and bigger," Song said in an interview. "... I wanted the aesthetics of the slimmer headlamp. It's just a pure sculpture. We let the headlamps do the talking."

The operation of LEDs can affect the styling of the lamps. Song said one lesson learned while developing the MKZ was that because LEDs generate less heat, they will not melt snow and ice on the front of the car. "There's no heat circulation," he said. "So we have a rear heat sink and had to install fans in back."

BMW's round lamps are almost as distinctive a symbol of the brand as its so-called kidney grille. But the lamps have been interpreted in different ways with succeeding technologies.

Sebastian Morgenstern, an exterior detail designer at BMW, noted the evolution of the brand's characteristic double round headlights in a video the company posted online.

The round format arrived in the 1960s, he said, but did not become strongly linked to BMW until the 1980s, when most other marques moved toward more square or oblong lamps. The round headlights are always surmounted by a lidlike structure, giving the face of the car an intent, even predatory, expression. "The critical thing is to cut the circles at the proper angle," Morgenstern said.

In 2000 came corona-like lamps that advanced the dual circle theme. Now LEDs are used in the 6 Series, and the round lamps are replaced with angled, three-dimensional versions of their shapes. "The new technologies give designers new possibilities," he said.

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