Headlight Sources

Tungsten light sources

The first electric headlamp light source was the tungsten filament, operating in a vacuum or inert-gas atmosphere inside the headlamp bulb or sealed beam. Compared to newer-technology light sources, tungsten filaments give off small amounts of light relative to the power they consume. Also, during normal operation of such lamps, tungsten boils off the surface of the filament and condenses on the bulb glass, blackening it. This reduces the light output of the filament and blocks some of the light that would pass through an unblackened bulb glass, though blackening was less of a problem in sealed beam units; their large interior surface area minimised the thickness of the tungsten accumulation. For these reasons, plain tungsten filaments are all but obsolete in automotive headlamp service.

Tungsten-halogen light sources

Halogen technology (also “quartz-halogen”, “quartz-iodine”, “iodine”, “iode”) makes tungsten filaments more efficacious producers of light — more lumens out per watt in — and Europeans chose to use this extra efficacy to provide drivers with more light than was available from nonhalogen filaments at the same power consumption. Unlike the European approach which emphasised increased light output, most U.S. low beam halogens were low current versions of their nonhalogen counterparts, producing the same amount of light with less power. A slight theoretical fuel economy benefit and reduced vehicle construction cost through reduced wire and switch ratings were the claimed benefits. There was an improvement in seeing distance with U.S. halogen high beams, which were permitted for the first time to produce 150,000 candelas (cd) per vehicle, double the nonhalogen limit of 75,000 cd but still well shy of the international European limit of 225,000 cd. After replaceable halogen bulbs were permitted in U.S. headlamps in 1983, development of U.S. bulbs continued to favour long bulb life and low power consumption, while European designs continued to prioritise optical precision and maximum output.

The first halogen bulb for vehicle use, the H1, was introduced in 1962 by a consortium of European bulb and headlamp makers. This bulb has a single axial filament that consumes 55 watts at 12.0 volts, and produces 1550 lumens ±15% when operated at 13.2 V. H2 (55 W @ 12.0 V, 1820 lm @ 13.2 V) followed in 1964, and the transverse-filament H3 (55 W @ 12.0 V, 1450 lm ±15%) in 1966. H1 still sees wide use in low beams, high beams and auxiliary foglamp and driving lamps, as does H3. The H2 does not see wide use any more because it requires an intricate bulb holder interface to the lamp, has a short life and is difficult to handle. For those reasons, H2 was withdrawn from ECE Regulation 37 for use in new lamp designs (though H2 bulbs are still manufactured for replacement purposes in existing lamps). The use of H1 and H3 bulbs was legalised in the United States in 1997. More recent single filament bulb designs include the H7 (55 W @ 12.0 V, 1500 lm ±10% @ 13.2 V), H8 (35 W @ 12.0 V, 800 lm ±15% @ 13.2 V), H9 (65 W @ 12.0 V, 2100 lm ±10% @ 13.2 V), and H11 (55 W @ 12.0 V, 1350 lm ±10% @ 13.2 V). 24-volt versions of many bulb types are available for use in trucks, buses, and other commercial and military vehicles.

The first dual-filament halogen bulb (to produce a low and a high beam with only one bulb), the H4, was released in 1971. The U.S. prohibited halogen headlamps until 1978, when halogen sealed beams were released. To this day, the H4 is still not legal for automotive use in the United States. Instead, the Americans created their own very similar standard (HB2/9003). The primary differences are that the HB2 sets more strict requirements on filament positioning, and that the HB2 are required to meet the lower maximum output standards set forth by the United States government.

The first U.S. halogen headlamp bulb, introduced in 1983, was the 9004/HB1. It is a 12.8-volt, transverse dual-filament design that produces 700 lumens on low beam and 1200 lumens on high beam. The 9004 is rated for 65 watts (high beam) and 45 watts (low beam) at 12.8 volts. Other U.S. approved halogen bulbs include the 9005/HB3 (65 W, 12.8 V), 9006/HB4 (55 W, 12.8 V), and 9007/HB5 (65/55 watts, 12.8 V).

Halogen infrared reflective light sources (HIR)

A further development of the tungsten-halogen bulb has a dichroic coating that passes visible light and reflects infrared radiation. The glass in such a bulb is spherical, rather than tubular. The reflected infrared radiation strikes the filament located at the centre of the sphere, heating the filament to a degree greater than occurs by passing an electric current through the filament. The filament thus superheated emits more light, without an increase in power consumption or a decrease in lifespan.

HID (xenon) light sources

Xenon projector low beam headlamp illuminated on a Lincoln MKS.

HID stands for high-intensity discharge, a technical term for the electric arc that produces the light. The high intensity of the arc comes from metallic salts that are vapourised within the arc chamber. These lamps are formally known as gas-discharge burners, and produce more light for a given level of power consumption than ordinary tungsten and tungsten-halogen bulbs. Because of the increased amounts of light available from HID burners relative to halogen bulbs, HID headlamps producing a given beam pattern can be made smaller than halogen headlamps producing a comparable beam pattern. Alternatively, the larger size can be retained, in which case the xenon headlamp can produce a more robust beam pattern.

Automotive HID lamps are commonly called ‘xenon headlamps’, though they are actually metal halide lamps that contain xenon gas. The xenon gas allows the lamps to produce minimally adequate light immediately upon powerup, and accelerates the lamps’ run-up time. If argon were used instead, as is commonly done in street lights and other stationary metal halide lamp applications, it would take several minutes for the lamps to reach their full output. The light from HID headlamps has a distinct bluish tint when compared with tungsten-filament headlamps. [21]


Xenon headlamps were introduced in 1991 as an option on the BMW 7-series. This first system used an unshielded, non-replaceable burner designated D1 — a designation that would be recycled years later for a wholly different type of burner. The AC ballast was about the size of a building brick. The first American-made effort at HID headlamps was on the 1996-98 Lincoln Mark VIII, which used reflector headlamps with an unmasked, integral-ignitor burner made by Sylvania and designated Type 9500. This was the only system to operate on DC; reliability proved inferior to the AC systems. The Type 9500 system was not used on any other models, and was discontinued after Osram’s takeover of Sylvania. All HID headlamps worldwide presently use the standardised AC-operated bulbs and ballasts.

Burner and ballast operation

HID headlamp bulbs do not run on low-voltage DC current, so they require a ballast with either an internal or external ignitor. The ignitor is integrated into the bulb in D1 and D3 systems, and is either a separate unit or integral with the electronic ballast in D2 and D4 systems. The ballast controls the current to the bulb. The ignition and ballast operation proceeds in three stages:

  1. Ignition: a high voltage pulse is used to produce a spark — in a manner similar to a spark plug – which ionises the Xenon gas, creating a conducting tunnel between the tungsten electrodes. In this tunnel, the electrical resistance is reduced and current flows between the electrodes.
  2. Initial phase: the bulb is driven with controlled overload. Because the arc is operated at high power, the temperature in the capsule rises quickly. The metallic salts vapourise, and the arc is intensified and made spectrally more complete. The resistance between the electrodes also falls; the electronic ballast control gear registers this and automatically switches to continuous operation.
  3. Continuous operation: all metal salts are in the vapour phase, the arc has attained its stable shape, and the luminous efficacy has attained its nominal value. The ballast now supplies stable electrical power so the arc will not flicker.

Stable operating voltage is 85 volts AC in D1 and D2 systems, 42 volts AC in D3 and D4 systems. The frequency of the square-wave alternating current is typically 400 hertz or higher.

Burner types

HID headlamp burners produce between 2,800 and 3,500 lumens from between 35 and 38 watts of electrical power, while halogen filament headlamp bulbs produce between 700 and 2,100 lumens from between 40 and 72 watts at 12.8 V.[22][23][24]

Current-production burner categories are D1S, D1R, D2S, D2R, D3S, D3R, D4S, and D4R. The D stands for discharge, and the number is the type designator. The final letter describes the outer shield. The arc within an HID headlamp bulb generates considerable short-wave ultraviolet (UV) light, but none of it escapes the bulb, for a UV-absorbing hard glass shield is incorporated around the bulb’s arc tube. This is important to prevent degradation of UV-sensitive components and materials in headlamps, such as polycarbonate lenses and reflector hardcoats. “S” burners — D1S, D2S, D3S, and D4S — have a plain glass shield and are primarily used in projector-type optics. “R” burners — D1R, D2R, D3R, and D4R — are designed for use in reflector-type headlamp optics. They have an opaque mask covering specific portions of the shield, which facilitates the optical creation of the light/dark boundary (cutoff) near the top of a low-beam light distribution. Automotive HID burners do emit considerable near-UV light, despite the shield.


The correlated colour temperature of HID headlamp bulbs, at between 4100K and 4400K, is often described in marketing literature as being closer to the 6500K of sunlight compared with tungsten-halogen bulbs at 3000K to 3550K. Nevertheless, HID headlamps’ light output is not similar to daylight. The spectral power distribution (SPD) of an automotive HID headlamp is discontinuous, while the SPD of a filament lamp, like that of the sun, is a continuous curve. Moreover, the colour rendering index (CRI) of tungsten-halogen headlamps (≥0.98) is much closer than that of HID headlamps (~0.75) to standardised sunlight (1.00). Studies have shown no significant safety effect of this degree of CRI variation in headlighting.[25][26][27][28]


Increased safety

The HID headlamp light sources (bulbs) offer substantially greater luminance and luminous flux than halogen bulbs — about 3000 lumens and 90 mcd/m2 versus 1400 lumens and 30 mcd/m2. If the higher-output HID light source is used in a well-engineered headlamp optic, the driver gets more usable light. Studies have demonstrated drivers react faster and more accurately to roadway obstacles with good HID headlamps rather than halogen ones.[29] Hence, good HID headlamps contribute to driving safety.[30] The contrary argument is that HID headlamps can negatively impact the vision of oncoming traffic due to their high intensity and “flashing” effect due to the rapid transition between low and high illumination in the field of illumination, thus increasing the risk of a head-on collision between the HID-enabled vehicle and a blinded oncoming driver.

Efficacy and output

HID burners give higher efficacy (produce more light from less power) than halogen bulbs. The highest-intensity halogen headlamp bulbs, H9 and HIR1, produce 2100 to 2530 lumens from approximately 70 watts at 13.2 volts. A D2S HID burner produces 3200 lumens from approximately 42 watts during stable operation.[22] The reduced power consumption means less fuel consumption, with resultant less CO2 emission per vehicle fitted with HID lighting (1.3 g/km assuming that 30% of engine running time is with the lights on).


The average service life of an HID lamp is 2000 hours, compared to between 450 and 1000 hours for a halogen lamp.[31]


Blind oncoming traffic

Due to their high intensity and unsual colour temperature, they can blind or enrage oncoming drivers, thus decreasing road safety and increasing the risk of head-on collisions.


Vehicles equipped with HID headlamps are required by ECE regulation 48 also to be equipped with headlamp lens cleaning systems and automatic beam levelling control. Both of these measures are intended to reduce the tendency for high-output headlamps to cause high levels of glare to other road users. In North America, ECE R48 does not apply and while lens cleaners and beam levellers are permitted, they are not required;[32] HID headlamps are markedly less prevalent in the US, where they have produced significant glare complaints.[33] Scientific study of headlamp glare has shown that for any given intensity level, the light from HID headlamps is 40% more glaring than the light from tungsten-halogen headlamps.[34]

Mercury content

HID headlamp bulb types D1R, D1S, D2R, D2S and 9500 contain the toxic heavy metal mercury. The disposal of mercury-containing vehicle parts is increasingly regulated throughout the world, for example under US EPA regulations. Newer HID bulb designs D3R, D3S, D4R, and D4S which are in production since 2004 contain no mercury,[35][36] but are not electrically or physically compatible with headlamps designed for previous bulb types.

Lack of backward-compatibility

The arc light source in an HID headlamp is fundamentally different in size, shape, orientation, and luminosity distribution compared to the filament light source used in tungsten-halogen headlamps. For that reason, HID-specific optics are used to collect and distribute the light. HID burners cannot effectively or safely be installed in optics designed to take filament bulbs; doing so results in improperly-focused beam patterns and excessive glare, and is therefore illegal in almost all countries.[37]


HID headlamps are significantly more costly to produce, install, purchase, and repair. The extra cost of the HID lights may exceed the fuel cost savings through their reduced power consumption, though some of this cost disadvantage is offset by the longer lifespan of the HID burner relative to halogen bulbs.

LED light sources

The first series-production LED headlamps on the Lexus LS 600h

Automotive headlamp applications using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been undergoing very active development since 2004.[38][39] The first series-production LED headlamps were factory-installed on the Lexus LS 600h / LS 600h L starting with the 2008 models. Low beam, front position light and sidemarker functions are performed by LEDs; high beam and turn signal functions use filament bulbs. The headlamp is supplied by Koito. Full-LED headlamps supplied by AL-Automotive Lighting were fitted on the 2008 V10 Audi R8 sports car except in North America. The Hella headlamps on the 2009 Cadillac Escalade Platinum became the first U.S. market all-LED headlamps. Present designs give performance between halogen and HID headlamps,[40] with system power consumption slightly lower than other headlamps, longer lifespans and more flexible design possibilities.[41][42] As LED technology continues to evolve, the performance of LED headlamps is predicted to improve to approach, meet, and perhaps one day surpass that of HID headlamps.[43]

The limiting factors with LED headlamps presently include high system expense, regulatory delays and uncertainty, and logistical issues created by LED operating characteristics. LEDs are commonly considered to be low-heat devices due to the public’s familiarity with small, low-output LEDs used for electronic control panels and other applications requiring only modest amounts of light. However, LEDs actually produce a significant amount of heat per unit of light output. Rather than being emitted together with the light as is the case with conventional light sources, an LED’s heat is produced at the rear of the emitters. The cumulative heat of numerous high-output LEDs operating for prolonged periods poses thermal-management challenges for plastic headlamp housings.

Prolonged operation above the maximum junction temperature will permanently degrade the LEDs and ultimately shorten the device’s life. The need to keep LED junction temperatures low at high power levels always requires additional thermal management measures such as heatsinks and exhaust fans which are typically quite expensive[citation needed].

Additional facets of the thermal issues with LED headlamps reveal themselves in cold ambient temperatures. Not only must heat be removed from the rear of the headlamp so that the housing does not deform or melt, but heat must in addition be effectively applied to thaw snow and ice from the front lenses, which are not heated by the comparatively small amount of infrared radiation emitted forward with the light from LEDs[citation needed].

LEDs are increasingly being adopted for signal functions such as parking lamps, brake lamps and turn signals as well as daytime running lamps, as in those applications they offer significant advantages over filament bulbs with fewer engineering challenges than headlamps pose.

Headlamp. (2010, January 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:23, January 9, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Headlamp&oldid=336759396

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