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Oh say can you see?

WHY THEY’RE USEFUL:

Laser lights have a range about twice that of current LED headlights

WHO’S WORKING ON THEM:

Audi, BMW and other automakers

WHEN WILL THEY HIT THE ROAD?

This year

For decades, most automobile headlights were fairly uncomplicated. They pointed fixedly ahead, with separate high beams for greater visibility on dark roads.

Then came the more energy-efficient halogen and xenon lights and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Now, automakers are pioneering a generation of “smart” headlights that can automatically adjust their brightness or direction depending on conditions. And a coming wave of laser high beams promises to illuminate the road ahead for a third of a mile – twice the range of LED high-beam headlights – while using less energy.

Audi and BMW are racing to be the first carmakers to offer laser lights in a production car: BMW in its i8 plug-in hybrid and Audi in a yet-to-be-named model (maybe the Quattro) by 2015.

“We’ll be able to extend the range of headlights to (a distance of) six football fields,” said Filip Brabec, director of product management for Audi. That’s 600 yards, or more than three north-south blocks in New York.

Audi plans to use the lights in a concept car participating in 24 Hours of Le Mans, the annual endurance race held in France in June.

To keep from blinding oncoming drivers, the headlights bounce lasers off a set of mirrors and reflectors, creating a diffused white light that pierces the darkness over great distances without frying eyeballs. Even so, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will have to approve them before they appear on models in the U.S.

Meanwhile, next-generation LEDs have sensors that can detect oncoming traffic and redirect the beams in such a way as not to blind other drivers. Audi and Mercedes have developed headlights – still not available on U.S. models – containing dozens of individual LEDs for more precise lighting.

An onboard computer, linked with cameras, controls each of them to mask glare onto other vehicles while flooding the road with light. With such a system, drivers can keep their high beams on all the time instead of having to toggle back and forth.

Unfortunately for the average driver, these advanced lighting systems are being added only to luxury vehicles. But as the technology improves and prices fall, the rest of us will inevitably see a brighter road ahead.

 

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