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We’re living in a golden era of vehicle performance and features, with horsepower numbers skyrocketing, even in common cars, and handling to match the horsepower becoming readily available in mainstream family haulers. One of the components accompanying these performance enhancements is headlight design over the last 40 years.

You might say that headlights really have nothing to do with how fast a car can drive, but when we’re talking about safety, the importance of seeing the road ahead can’t be overstated. At 60 miles per hour, your vehicle is travelling 88 feet per second, but your braking distance will be a lot longer than that in most vehicles, so having a strong set of headlights can make the difference between a near miss and a collision.  

The two most common types of headlights bulbs today are halogen headlights and LED, or light emitting diode, headlights. Halogen lights got their start in Europe in the 1960s, making their debut in the United States in the late 1970s, and they represent the most common form of headlight bulb in use today. LED headlights have become more common in the last several years, as automakers are realizing the cosmetic and energy saving potential in the technology. A third variety of headlights, HID, or High-Intensity Discharge, have been popular on high-end vehicles since the early 2000’s, but are not as prevalent in the aftermarket today other than factory replacements. For the sake of choosing between LED or Halogen, we’ll skip HID systems as most vehicles equipped with these systems must retain the factory bulb, which is accompanied with a ballast as well.  

How Halogen Headlight Bulbs Work 

Halogen bulbs are like the incandescent light bulbs we grew up with in our homes, in that they pass electrical current through a filament within a closed bulb and that generates light. Halogen bulbs use a quartz bulb material, as opposed to the standard light bulbs that are made with a glass exterior, because a halogen bulb creates much more heat when in operation. Halogen bulbs are also brighter than standard light bulbs because their tungsten filaments release vapor that combines with the gases inside the bulb to create a cycle in which the tungsten atoms then recombine with the filament, creating higher light output and generating heat.  

The other advantage to this recombination cycle is that halogen bulb filaments last longer than the filaments in traditional bulbs. The downside is that they produce a lot of heat, and all that heat manifests itself in wasted energy, when compared to some other forms of automotive lighting. 

How LED Headlight Bulbs Operate 

LED lights use diodes to pass electrical current through a semiconductor in one direction, causing that material to emit photons, or light. The components in LED lighting systems are quite simple and that translates to much longer service lives than halogen bulbs. Some original equipment LED headlight bulbs can last for the service life of the vehicle, while halogen bulbs are known to burn out after 500 to 1,000 hours of use. LED bulbs also use dramatically less electricity to provide similar or better lighting output, and that is a game changer in the automotive industry, especially for electric vehicles. Another bonus is little heat is produced. 

Where do LED Headlights Excel? 

There are several advantages to LED headlights in automobiles, including improved light output and frequency, flexibility in creating stylistic lighting array shapes, light shaping, and reduced power consumption. These advantages balance the increased cost that you’ll see if you are looking to upgrade. 

Light Output 

LED lights often have a whiter light frequency than their halogen counterparts, which makes it easier to pick up road markers and hazards in the dark. The white frequency of the light is much more comparable to daylight, when compared to the yellowish light frequency of halogen bulbs.  

Stylistic Flexibility 

Manufacturers are spending millions of dollars to improve fuel efficiency in their fleets and improving the drag coefficient of a vehicle is an easy way to reduce the amount of fuel it consumes, especially at high speeds. LED lights are much smaller that halogen bulbs and can be arrayed in a range of shapes to reduce drag coefficient, improve function, and contribute to the style or design of the car. This is one of the reasons that LED lighting was first seen on luxury brands like Audi and Porshe

Light Shaping 

An LED array has many small bulbs, and those bulbs can be oriented in a variety of directions to shape the light pattern. This allows manufacturers to create different light patterns for the driver side, where the light should go straight forward to avoid blinding oncoming drivers, versus the passenger side, where the light needs to illuminate objects or hazards on the shoulder of the road. It has also led to movable light arrays that follow the steering input from the driver to illuminate “around the corner”. 

Power Consumption 

Every watt of energy consumed by a light or accessory in a running car creates drag on the alternator and that translates to poorer fuel economy. LED lights are about 80% efficient, converting much more of their energy into light, as opposed to heat. Because of that, an LED bulb requires much less energy to provide excellent illumination, and this improves the overall fuel efficiency of the vehicle. 

It is not a coincidence that most electric vehicles also utilize LED lighting, due to the huge energy saving inherent in their operation. 

led headlight bulbs vs halogen

Does the Type of Bulb Really Make a Difference? 

LED headlights are superior to halogen bulbs in almost every way, but the main downside with LED headlights remains the cost. Many automakers now offer LED headlight options as an upgrade to the standard halogen or incandescent bulbs, but it is safe to say that as fuel economy standards continue to rise and electric vehicles become more common, more carmakers will adopt LED lighting as a standard feature, even replacing high-end HID systems with LED.

If you do some driving on highways, you might consider replacing your halogen bulbs with LED aftermarket headlights either when the original equipment headlights burn out, or just as an upgrade. The improvement in visibility will be quite dramatic and could be a literal life saver, so you can’t really put a price on that. The new LED bulbs could also last for the entire life of the vehicle, so that would offset the increased purchased price as well. 

Replacement LED headlight bulbs can be a serious upgrade in your car for a relatively small price. Wondering if LED bulbs are available for your car? Ask an AutoZoner for assistance and you might just be driving around with brighter lights by day’s end. 

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