Modern headlights have their root back to the 1880s when companies started using acetylene headlights (aka carbide headlamps) in their vehicle. Modern electric headlights were first introduced in 1898 to give better visibility and reduce the risk of acetylene flame caused accidents.
Since then, headlamps have been constantly evolving and we have got 4 generations of electric headlights to compare head to head today!
So, let's get started!
The article includes a detailed operating process of LED, halogen, HID, and Laser headlights. Plus, the advantages and disadvantages of each type with a head to head comparison.
What are LED Headlights?
LED is the abbreviation of the term "Light Emitting Diode". From the name itself, you can get an idea of what do the LEDs do. LEDs are a special type of semiconductor that lights up when electrical current passes through them.
While your home LED bulbs are mostly come with a circuit board and diodes to emit light. LED headlights are equipped with more. An LED headlight is a combination of light emitting diodes, a circuit board, a heat sink, and a fan to cool down the board.
How Do LED Headlights Work?
LED headlights work by passing electrical currents through the semiconductor. When you turn the headlight on, electrical current passes through the anode ( the positive lead of the bulb) to the cathode (negative lead). In between the anode and the cathode, there is a semiconductor material that emits photon which illuminates the road.
Because there is no moving part in the main LED, they are supposed to last a very long time than the traditional halogen bulbs.
Unlike other types of headlights, LEDs do not heat up but the circuit board does. To battle this problem, a heat sink with a high rpm fan is installed in the LED headlights that keep the system cool making them long lasting. That's why the LEDs make less temperature than all other headlights we have talked about here.
What are the Adaptive LED Headlights?
This is a relatively new term that refers to a fine tuned LED headlight system that can be adjusted according to your needs. You can adjust focus, brightness and other relevant things in the Adaptive LED headlights.
These are common in electric vehicles and hybrid ones for enhanced energy efficiency.
Pros & Cons of LED Headlights
When it comes to light production, LEDs are quite good in the area. Depending on the quality of the LED, you can get bright light that illuminates the surrounding as well for better visibility. LEDs come in a wide range of color temperature, and you can get bright daylight like environment with 5000 to 6000 kelvin.
However, unoptimized LEDs or faulty installation can make blazing light that blinds the oncoming vehicle's driver. So, picking up LED bulbs for projector headlights and the reflector ones require decent quality checks.
As you already know, there is no moving or brittle part in the LEDs, these are long lasting. Since the circuit board gets hot when the LED is illuminated, it requires a proper cooling mechanism installed. So, a good quality heat sink along with a powerful heat dissipating fan makes the LEDs last long. Generally, a good quality LED bulb would last around 50000 hours.
LEDs are expensive than the traditional halogen bulbs and the comparatively newer inclusion to the list, HIDs. However, considering the longer lifespan and efficient hassle free experience, LEDs worth every penny.
Comparing to the halogen bulbs and xenon lights, LEDs are quite energy efficient. They require less electrical current from the car battery to produce brighter light.
Here comes the main part. How safe is the LED headlights is a question that everyone asks before replacing their stock headlights with LED light bulbs.
Safety depends on the bulb itself, its housing, and its adaptability. Since LEDs can go so much bright that can blind the oncoming driver. Focus, length, intensity, and brightness needs to be checked before installing an LED bulb in the vehicle.
LED headlights are legal in most countries subject to some restrictions. In the USA, you can use LEDs in your headlights by complying with some safety standards. However, you need to check the law before installation as the Law is constantly changing.
When it comes to maintenance, you don't need to do any maintenance at all in the LED headlights as there is no moving part in the LED. However, you may need to maintain the fan and clean the heat sink a few times if you go off road.
What are Halogen Headlights?
You should have already a pair installed in your car. If not, you must have seen them on the road. These are the headlights that produce a bit yellowish hue when lit.
Halogen headlights are like the old school filament based Incandescent light bulbs. These consist of a small amount of halogen gas and tungsten made filament that heats up when connected with the electricity.
How Do Halogen Headlights Work?
When you turn the headlights on, electricity passes through the tungsten filament and heats it up. The energy generated in the filament then emits in the form of light.
You may have been curious about the gas used in the glass capsule housing. The gas is used to prevent the filament from evaporating and getting stuck on the tube wall making the visibility poor. Another reason behind filling the bulb with gas is to keep the tungsten filament in place.
When the electric current passes through it and it heats up, tungsten atoms vibrate and can detach from the lead making the bulb useless. To combat this situation, the bulb is pressurized with gases.
Pros and Cons of Halogen Headlights
In terms of brightness, halogen headlights come at the last of all the types. These are not so bright and the surroundings remain dark. Although you don't need much light in the surroundings, it is recommended to have some view of the side of the road, especially in the highways, to avoid collision with animals.
When it comes to durability, halogen bulbs are the least efficient. These last from 450 to 2000 hours generally. As the halogen bulbs are sealed and tungsten filaments are used, they wear off pretty fast.
The best thing about halogens is their price. These are the cheapest and widely found headlights that you will find anywhere in the world. Because of their inexpensive price point and easy availability, this type of headlight still dominates the road.
Here comes another downside of the halogen lamps. Since these emit light by heating the filament, they take a lot of electrical energy to illuminate the road in front of you.
Comparing them with the other 3 types of headlight bulbs in the energy efficiency category, these come at the last spot.
With good quality halogen bulbs in the headlights housing, you should be able to see every important thing in front of your car while driving. Plus, the light is not so bright to blind the oncoming car's driver to make things smoothly running. So, if you want a safer light to use, halogen bulbs will come at the topper tier.
A great advantage of having halogen bulbs installed in your headlight housing is these are legal all over the world. Unlike LEDs, HIDs, and Laser headlights, you don't need to think about legality in different countries and states when your car is equipped with halogen headlights.
There is nothing to be careful of in a halogen headlight. These are irreparable and hence, you need to replace them if anything goes wrong in the headlight.
What are HID Headlights?
HID or High-Intensity Discharge Headlights are relatively modern inclusion in the car headlights. These lights use xenon gas to produce light, that is why many people refer to these lights as Xenon headlights.
Headlights using two electrodes to excite the gas sealed in the transparent glass chamber to emit light is called HID headlights.
How Do HID Headlights Work?
HID lamps are like plasma lights that excite gases sealed inside the tube to generate light. If you don't know much about plasma lights, neon lights also work like HIDs. HID headlights are made of two electrodes that are enclosed in a sealed glass tube with xenon gases.
When you turn the switch on, the high voltage electrical current passes through the electrodes exciting the gas inside the sealed housing. The gas then emits the energy as light.
Unlike other types of headlights, High intensity discharge lights take a few moments before it gets to its peak brightness. While the xenon gas reduces the time significantly, you will still see a 10 second warming up time in the HID headlights.
Pros and Cons of HID Headlights
Considering the color temperature or brightness, HID headlights are quite efficient when used properly. However, like LEDs, HID bulbs also emit shining bright light that blinds oncoming drivers sometimes. So, it is very important to get it positioned properly, cut off correctly, and using standard 4300K to 6000K xenon bulbs.
HID headlights last from 2000 to 4000 hours depending on their quality, how they have been used and where have you been illuminating them.
Roughly, you should get around two hundred thousand miles night time coverage with a pair of HID headlights.
Xenon headlights are cheaper than the LEDs but expensive than the halogens. So, these are in a position where people feel comfortable purchasing.
Like the price, HID headlights lag behind LEDs but comes over the halogen counterparts. These are not so energy efficient like LED bulbs. And do not perform as poorly as halogen bulbs.
Safety & Legality
As we have mentioned earlier in the article, HID headlamps can go blazing bright making the oncoming driver blind. And because these are comparatively new in the industry, not all countries allow people to use HIDs as their headlamps.
Since there is no clear indication in the Federal law of the USA about the legality of the HID bulbs in the vehicle, it is not recommended to use them in the vehicle to avoid unnecessary hassle unless those are pre-installed in your car.
Here comes the interesting part. In 99% of cars running on the road today, you won't be able to use HID headlamps directly. You need to use an HID conversion kit to install a xenon headlamp in your halogen headlight housing.
So, it is not so good in terms of maintenance as it will be another hassle to getting back to your stock headlights or any other modern upgrade. And there remains a vogue legal issue as well.
What are Laser Headlights?
Laser headlights are one of the amazing things that happened to the automotive industry recently. Although these are not popular yet nor it became legal in the whole world, laser headlights are promising some revolutionary changes the way we see our vehicles.
These use laser beams to emit bright white light while consuming less energy then most other types of lights we have discussed in the article and takes less space as well.
How Do Laser Headlights Work?
Laser beams are not actually focusing on the road rather they are aimed backward. 3 blue laser beams are focused on some mirrors placed at the back of the headlight housing. The mirror reflects the light onto a lens filled with phosphorus (yellow in color) that excites and emits bright white light. The light then passes through another layer of reflector before finally heating the road.
The final reflector adjusts the light position, cut off, intensity, and other stuff.
Pros and Cons of Laser Headlights
Laser headlights have been introduced in 2014 by Ford & BMW. Compared to all other headlight types, laser headlamps produce more focused, bright white light that does not blind other drivers. Plus, illuminates the surroundings quite a bit to avoid any collision with animals when driving on highways.
The laser headlight works like a traditional laser but in a modified way so that it can illuminate areas necessary to drive the vehicle at night.
When it comes to durability, laser headlights are the best among all. These are supposed to illuminate the roads in front of your car for a whopping 50,000 hours.
However, the lights have not been on the road widely for enough time to get accurate data and thus, you can't know whether the claim of the laser headlight promoters true or not.
Among all the types we have mentioned in this comparative guide, laser headlamps are the most expensive. But the price is supposed to decrease by the lapse time as more Automobile brands will start using them and go in mass production.
When it comes to energy efficiency, laser headlights are in the front row of all. These provide more focused bright light by consuming a lot less energy than the halogen or HIDs.
Safety has been a key concern for laser headlights from the very beginning of their arrival in the market. Since the light works by reflecting laser beams to produce focused light beams, people share their concern on the safety of the oncoming driver's eyes.
Answering that, BMW claims the light to be safe and good to use in the road. But the concern remains on people's minds. What will happen if the car collides with anything on the road and the laser itself is exposed with broken safety layers? Well, BMW assured that the power supply cuts off as soon as the vehicle collides or injures the headlight housing to protect other drivers and pedestrians.
In 2018, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the USA legalized using modern adaptive headlights like laser headlamps to minimize accidents at night.
These are also legal in Europe and Japan. But as the invention is recent and has not been widely used, most of the countries in the world remain silent about their legality.
Although the USA legalized to use them in the vehicle, they must undergo some safety tests before they hit the road.
Here comes the tricky part. Laser headlights are not popular and to maintain them properly, you need to follow the strict guidelines from the manufacturer. However, if the headlight goes bad or any other problems arise relating to the headlights, it will become a headache for the owner.
Moreover, their usage in luxury vehicles makes things more complicated as it will cost more to replace or troubleshoot.
What Type of Headlights Should I Use?
Before answering the question directly, we should compare all four types of headlights side by side to see which one is the best fit for the vehicle.
In terms of color and brightness, laser headlights come at the top of all. These provide great visibility with long distance coverage without consuming much energy. LEDs are the next in brightness, followed by Xenon and Halogens.
Yellowish hue, not so bright.
Bright & White Light output
Depends on config. Can be blazing bright or yellowish.
Bright & Greatly focused.
Consumes most energy.
Most energy efficient.
Better than halogen, but falls behind LED.
Somewhere between LED & HID
Price (Bulb only)
Lasts 500 to 2000 hours
Up to 50,000 hours
2000 to 4000 hours life span
Up to 50,000 hours
Can be fixed. Requires fan cleaning.
No Verified information till now
When it comes to the price, the serial remains the same. Laser headlights cost the most, followed by LEDs, HIDs, and Halogens.
But in the durability section, Laser and LED headlights perform similarly serving you for the whole lifetime of the vehicle. On the other hand, Xenon and Halogens are significantly lagging behind the other two as they only last around 2000 hours.
However, LEDs are the best when it comes to energy efficiency, followed by Laser, Xenon, and Halogens.
Another interesting fact is the operating temperature of the headlights. While halogen lamps make around 400 degrees Fahrenheit in the hotspot, followed by HIDs 500 degrees in the hot spot. LEDs and Laser headlamps temperature readouts are significantly lower than the Xenon and halogens despite generating more heat.
To combat the heat, LEDs and Laser headlights come with high performance fan and heat sink so that the light remains cool and lasts long. We have got around 150 degrees of temperature in LEDs.
Please note that the temperature measurement has been done after running the lights about 10 minutes each so that we can get accurate data.
Should I Change My Headlights?
Whether you should change your vehicle's headlight or not depends on the condition and quality of it. If you feel the light production is not up to the mark and you need a better view of the surroundings, then replacing halogens with LED lamps is a good option to go with.
If you opt to the HIDs, make sure to choose the correct conversion kits and configuration of the light.
Considering different aspects of 4 generations of headlights, we can say that the headlamps have evolved significantly in the recent past.
While the halogens still rule the road, it is losing its spot to the newer developments like HIDs, LEDs, and the Laser headlamps.
Before you intend to change your old school headlights with a modern type, make sure to check your local laws so that you do not end up getting traffic tickets.