Laser-Equipped Cars to Zap Energy Costs, Illuminate the Road

What if your car came equipped with powerful laser beams, like something out of Star Wars?

Imagine the scenario: you’re driving down the road, and instead of panicking when a small furry animal gets in your path, you press a button and eliminate the threat. Or, as a semi drifts into your lane, you warn the driver with a Taser-like zap.

Okay, maybe having a high-powered laser in your sports car isn't going to fly with US safety regulators. Yet, it turns out that recent advancements in laser technology could mean the future car will use laser beams for headlights instead of the LEDs found on many high-end automobiles.

Abdelmalek Hanafi, the head of laser light development at BMW, told that lasers emit a much more intense beam of light than other forms of illumination used in headlights. The German automaker is experimenting with how the technology could be applied to advanced optical systems in future vehicles, initially to spot pedestrians at night.

The new Dynamic Light Spot technology, included in a concept car called the BMW i8, would identify and illuminate pedestrians with a bright, targeted beam as though they just walked into direct sunlight.

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But Hanafi says the main advantage to use lasers is that they consume less power than traditional light sources. The daytime running lights on a high-end BMW typically consume about 20 watts of power, but with laser-powered lights, the energy draw is only about 10 watts, or half the energy. The laser-lights would also be 100 times smaller than the individual LED cells.

“We use a high-power laser diode that emits light from a small surface that pumps a remote phosphor to generate white light,” he explained. Each module is optimized to extend the light beam. The lasers are about 1000 times brighter than LED modules for a wide swath of road-covering light.

Because the laser lights are brighter and consume less energy that LED lights, Hanafi says there are implications for using the technology in future battery-powered cars where the conservation of electricity is of the utmost importance.

Ray Blanco, a technology analyst with Agora Financial, says that the new laser technology would not be so high-powered as to cause eye damage, and that a similar laser-based lighting could be used for warning indicators in the car, emitting a highly recognizable signal to other drivers.

Indeed, he says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has insisted for years that one of the best ways to reduce accidents is to use more illumination on roadway signs. Nothing quite gets our attention like a bright beam of light, so using more laser tech in cars makes sense.

Audi has developed a similar technology in the A2 concept vehicle. Its matrix beam technology on that car also emits a blast of light that gets your attention, while super-bright laser-powered brake lights emit brighter and brighter warning signals the longer you step on the brake. In the future, it would become harder for a distracted driver behind you, texting away on a smartphone, to not notice you.

Hanafi says the Audi approach is different from what BMW is doing, however. He says the A2 concept uses red laser diodes shaped by optics in the brake lights that cause the light to spread far and wide. BMW is using blue laser diodes that create a secondary source of white light. A monochromatic light from the diodes is used as a pump and converted to a bright white light. He says the technology would not change the shape of the headlights, which would look similar to current models.

Even with that explanation, and understanding the technology is intended to make driving safer and consume less energy, there’s still one eventual conclusion: someday, your car might be equipped with laser technology, so everyone else on the road had better watch out.

How could they not?

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