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Tech-splanation 7: AFL and LED lighting

LEDs work by passing much less electricity through a special combination of semiconducting material such as silicon. (123RF)
LEDs work by passing much less electricity through a special combination of semiconducting material such as silicon. (123RF)

Preston Tucker incorporated or envisioned many innovations for his 1948 Tucker Sedan that we see in today’s cars, including collapsible steering columns, a space frame style of chassis and combination of a crush zone and a safety crash chamber to protect occupants.

But the one innovation that remains the most visible is his ‘cyclops’ third headlight that, at steering angles greater than 10 degrees, turned into corners to light the path around corners.

Today, we call that...

Adaptive Front Lighting

What it is: it’s the embodiment in modern technology of Tucker's cyclops idea.

Using one of several techniques, cars using it ‘steer’ their headlights into corners.

How it works: some manufacturers use electric motors mounted to the headlight assembly to turn the bulb reflectors in concert with the steering wheel.

Others use solid-state switches to activate a secondary bulb in each headlight to light the corner, while others activate an entirely separate light on the front corners of vehicles.

Your mileage may vary, but I think the third system works best.

The first two create a cool effect but are limited in the increased visibility they provide.

The last one doesn't cast light far (it’s designed for lower-speed corners), but it does light the way very well. The first two systems are often quite subtle in their operation, to the point I’ve driven such cars for a day or two before I even noticed.

Cons: none, other than potentially increased complexity of repairs. Usually, a feature found only on the very top end of many car's gradewalks, and usually only comes with HID headlights.

LED lighting

What it is: for most people, LEDs mean never changing a bulb again.

How it works: traditional light bulbs work by passing electricity through a highly resistive filament, which glows brightly inside its vacuum-sealed glass envelope.

Without that vacuum, the filament would obliterate itself almost instantly. The vacuum prevents that, but the reality the bulb works by slowly burning itself up is ever-present. A burnt-out bulb is exactly that.

LEDs work by passing much less electricity through a special combination of semiconducting material such as silicon.

The exact physics would take pages of copy, but in a nutshell, the light is produced when electrons release some energy, as light, while passing across the diode junction.

Because the light created is from the constant resupply of new electrons, rather than from the self-sacrifice of a bulb's filament, LEDs last very, very long.

So long, that a car might go through two or even three owners before an LED assembly needs replacement.

Development of LEDs has progressed from those dim digital watches of the 1970s to the point they are bright enough to act as brake lights, turn signals and daytime running lights.

LED headlights are nearly here.

Aside from long life, LEDs other significant advantage is speed. They light up almost instantly, while it takes conventional bulbs a few microseconds to get up to operating temperature.

LEDs light up 30 per cent faster, which might, at speed, just be the edge the driver behind you needs in reacting to your brake lights.

Cons: none, since the added cost of replacement is more than offset by the infrequent need to do so.

Have a question about new technologies? Send me an email, I might use your question in an upcoming column.