BMW's new i8 is the first production car with laser headlights

The headlights project whiter light that's three times brighter than LEDs

This fall, the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid will become the first production vehicle to incorporate a new laser light technology into headlights. Audi is also experimenting with the technology.

BMW will be the first manufacturer to offer laser headlights in a production car, but it won't be the only carmaker to do so.

This fall, BMW plans to release its new i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, which will incorporate the new laser light technology. While the basic version of the BMW i8 is equipped with high-intensity, energy-efficient full LED headlamps, the optional laser boost feature would ensure a high-beam range of up to 1,800 -- about a third of a mile.

The BMW's laser headlights (right) project twice as far as LED headlights. (Image: BMW)

"The light of a laser headlamp is extremely bright, similar to daylight, which is perceived by the human eye as pleasant," BMW said in a statement.

Audi is also experimenting with the new laser headlight technology which is three times brighter than light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

"Thanks to the new laser technology, it is possible to increase energy efficiency by a further 30% compared to already highly power-saving LED light," BMW stated.

Audi plans to use its "matrix" LED/laser headlight technology on its R18 E-Tron Quattro racecar in the Le Mans 24 Hours this June. Audi demonstrated its headlight technology in the Sport Quattro at CES in January. It has yet to say when it will use the technology in a production vehicle.

Audi demos its "Matrix" LED/laser headlights on the Sport Quattro. (Video: Audi)

Audi and BMW's headlamps use LEDs for short-range lighting and lasers for long distance.

The laser technology also allows the headlamp units to be smaller. BMW's laser diodes are 10 times smaller than conventional LED diodes. "They help to save not only available installation space inside the headlamp, but also weight," BMW said.

Won't lasers blind oncoming traffic?

BMW and Audi have had to field some obvious questions about the safety of their new headlights. The first and foremost is whether the lasers are projected directly from the headlamp units. (They're not.)

Audi did not respond to a request for comment on how safe its laser headlamp technology is.

BMW said each of its headlamps have three blue lasers positioned at the rear of the assembly that fire onto mirrors near the front of the unit. The mirrors focus the laser light onto a lens that is filled with yellow phosphorus. The phosphorus transforms the beam into an exceptionally bright white light that is 10 times more intense than conventional light sources.

This shows how the laser is projected from the BMW i8 headlamp. (Image: BMW)

That white light is then projected backward, onto a reflector, which bounces diffused white light from the headlight in a beam that does not harm the eye.

BMW said it has addressed any issues of "dazzling" oncoming traffic or vehicles with the laser lights with the aid of the camera-based, digital high-beam assistant. When the laser lights are activated, a digital high beam assistant identifies oncoming vehicles as well as those ahead and dips the light automatically as soon as there is a danger of "dazzling".

"When the road is free again, the assistant automatically re-enables the high beam, thereby restoring the maximum range of visibility," a BMW spokesperson wrote in an email reply to Computerworld.

"Sufficiently illuminated cyclists can also be identified by the camera system, at which time the high beam is deactivated. Animals and pedestrians, however, are not identified by the camera system.

BMW demonstrates how the laser headlight technology works. (Video: BMW)

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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This story, "BMW's new i8 is the first production car with laser headlights" was originally published by Computerworld.

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