Not just shining in the dark. Lights have to do more than that

Not just shining in the dark. Lights have to do more than that

Designers look for ways to turn headlights into jewels that adorn cars. Technicians, for their part, keep an eye on lots of practical and legislative requirements. This is one reason why car lights development is unexpectedly challenging.

1. 2. 2024 Škoda World

At first glance, headlights have a relatively simple task: to give the driver a good view of the road at night. But the requirement for daytime running lights, among other things, shows that headlights have much more to do than just illuminate the road in the dark. What’s more, the demands placed on them are slowly but surely increasing. 

“It takes 3 to 4 years to develop headlights for one model. A lot of factors play a role in this, from design to homologation and other technical requirements, functionality, and durability, but also, of course, what is technically possible and how much development costs,” explains Petr Nevřela, head of the headlights design team at Škoda. 

According to Nevřela, the designers always want the car’s headlights to be as thin as possible (in terms of height) and to make the car appear wider. This applies to both the front headlights and the rear ones. With the advent of LED technology, the possibilities for designers in this respect have improved considerably, but at the same time LED technology places even greater demands on designers. “In the dark, the headlights are pretty much a car’s only distinguishing feature. So as soon as the technology permitted, we decided to put this to use,” explains Nevřela, explaining why “light signatures”, i.e. the different shapes that the lighting of a car creates, have become so popular recently. 

“Every car company has to abide by the same rules: homologation, pedestrian protection and crash tests; and of course, the physical principles are the same for everyone. But each company is trying to come up with something unique,” says Nevrela. Škoda, for example, has its typical C signature on the rear and makes great use of crystalline design, with some elements in the light resembling cut glass, or crystal. In this respect, the new generations of the Superb and Kodiaq models have brought an interesting innovation – the coloured crystalline element Crystallinium.

Headlights of the latest generation of the Škoda Kodiaq with the blue Crystallinium crystalline element. Its technical solution is patented by Škoda Auto.

Getting the most out of the available technology

While the design department always has one designer working on the headlights for a particular model, the other departments have a larger team of engineers working on the part. “We always get the minimum amount of room for manoeuvre from the designers in terms of headlight design. This is particularly difficult with the front lights, where there are mechanical parts for height adjustment. And sometimes we simply find that there just isn’t enough room for that movement,” explains Jiří Stránský, who is responsible for coordinating lights development at Škoda Technical Development. These mechanical parts are essential, because they have to ensure that the car always shines as it should and that headlights do not dazzle oncoming vehicles. “The headlights have to work the same way on an empty car as on a fully loaded car,” explains Stránský. The technical capabilities of the individual light modules also play a role in the development process, as their properties are constantly improving in line as LED sources and electronics evolve. 

“Interestingly, there are no standardised light modules for tail lamps, and their development always starts from scratch,” adds Stránský’s colleague Pascal Schöbel, who is responsible for coordinating the development of rear lights. Here too, Škoda has recently again opted for the efficient route of developing one design type of light for multiple body variants. “The new Superb and other models have the same tail lights in both variants (saloon and estate). This is a challenge for designers, but it’s lowered our costs and allowed us to invest money in a different area of lights development where we needed it more,” says Schöbel.

Tail lights of the current generation of the Škoda Kamiq

Illumination alone is no longer enough

Today, car headlights and lamps no longer just have aesthetic and illumination functions. “In total, there are about 60 functions we have to consider. In addition to the main ones, such as dipped and full-beam headlights, outline marker lights and direction indicators, there are functions such as hazard lights, panic braking, ʻcoming & leaving’ home animations and much more besides,” explains Stránský. One interesting feature is “tourist mode”, which ensures that the headlights work properly even if the driver goes to in a country where they drive on the left instead of the right. This is because the headlights shine asymmetrically on the road, so without this feature they would dazzle every oncoming driver there. 

Another interesting point is that it’s no longer necessary to have a turning mechanism in the headlamps to light up corners. This is all dealt with by switching individual diodes on and off or changing their intensity. There are dozens or even hundreds of these diodes in each headlamp. Consequently, modern cars can also control the light beam to suit the environment – in the city the beam is wider and less intense, outside urban areas it is more concentrated on a further distance. Everything is automated, and for this reason headlight development involves a host of software solutions and controller design.

Škoda Superb Combi and its rear lights

Software is going to become even more important in the future. Designers and engineers agree that the trend is not only to light up more parts of the car (including the logo, for example – which required a change to the homologation regulations), but also more complex headlight functions that can turn headlamps into high-resolution projectors. “But this requires yet more changes to the regulations, which are still being worked on. We have to monitor all this and anticipate future developments because, given how long headlights take to develop, we need to be ready for any changes in good time,” says Pascal Schöbel. Our technicians work together with our designers on future trends and try out various creative ideas. For example, the illuminated mask of the Enyaq electric car, known as Crystal Face, recently came about thanks to this collaboration.

Play of lights from the front headlamp of the Škoda Enyaq 85

The history of car lights

Car headlights have undergone rapid development during their existence. The first cars didn’t even have to have headlights, so buyers of the Laurin & Klement Voiturette A, for example, had to specifically request them. The lights provided for the Voiturette A were acetylene headlamps instead of the candle headlamps that the first cars took from horse-drawn carriages. Electric headlamps appeared in the 1920s, such as those on the Laurin & Klement Škoda 110 in 1929. This car could also be equipped with a simple high beam solution, this function being provided by tilting the lamps. This was followed by a long period of electric headlamp evolution, mainly in terms of appearance and effect. The Škoda Popular Monte Carlo, for example, used elegantly covered front lights and also had a direction indicator in the form of a flip-up turn signal located behind the cab door. 

Electric lights on the Laurin & Klement Škoda 110

The classic orange “blinkers” appeared in the 1950s, when the main headlights still used various bulbs. It was only in 1962 that standardised replaceable bulbs appeared (then type H1). For a long time, cars used round headlights, or just differently shaped covers, but a bigger change came in the 1980s. This was when cars like the Škoda 125 were given large, rectangular headlamps, with adjoining direction indicators – this can therefore be regarded as the first integrated design. Direction indicators integrated directly into the main headlight appeared with the Favorit in 1987. Nevertheless, the design of the headlamps was still determined by functional requirements rather than the designers’ imagination. That only began to change at the turn of the millennium with further advances in technology. The first-generation Škoda Superb could thus be fitted with xenon headlights in 2001. LED headlights, then for daytime running lights, made their debut in 2009 with the Octavia RS, and in 2012 the Octavia also got LED technology for the main headlights.  In the following years, after the introduction of LED technology for the main functions, not only did the array of functions expand (with innovations such as Light Assist for automatic switching of dipped and main beam, or advanced Matrix-LED headlights and other solutions), but the opportunities for designers to stamp their mark also grew considerably.

In 1987 the Favorit model was given indicators fully integrated into the main headlight.