LED headlights are all the rage in the auto industry these days, and now are available on many lower-priced vehicles, though usually only on higher trim levels and often as optional equipment.
However, for years, halogen headlights were the main choice for most automobiles. Only recently has this changed, and many still do not know the advantages of LED headlights.
LEDs appeal to automakers and consumers for several reasons: They’re brighter than halogen headlights and often cast a wider pattern, plus they use less energy, last longer and have a much whiter color than halogens, which typically are yellowish. What’s more, a lot of people think they look cool.
Halogen headlights were the standard for the auto industry for years because they were cheap to manufacture and simple to replace, but now LEDs are outshining them.
Here’s how they’re different: Halogens are incandescent lights that have a tungsten filament inside a bulb. When electric current passes through the filament, it heats up and generates light. They differ from regular incandescent bulbs in that they have a dose of halogen gas instead of argon gas. Halogen bulbs are brighter than regular incandescent bulbs and tend to last longer.
With LEDs, an electric current passes through a semiconductor (or diode) to produce light that is brighter and generates less heat. LEDs operate about 90% more efficiently than incandescent bulbs, and because they generate less heat, that helps them last much longer than other types of lights. LEDs also typically don’t burn out like incandescent bulbs, though they do dim over time.
Because LEDs are smaller than bulb-type lights, they allow more design freedom with headlights and other vehicle lights. The downside is that they are more expensive than halogens or high-intensity-discharge headlights, which typically use xenon gas.
The answer often is yes, but not always.
Whether the light comes from a halogen or high-intensity-discharge bulb or LEDs, the design of the headlight assembly and the reflectors — the parts that shine the light down the road — also affects performance, along with how well the headlights are aimed.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates headlights based on the distance that they illuminate the road as a vehicle travels straight and on curves. IIHS says that on a straight road, low-beam headlights rated good (the top rating) illuminate the right side of the road at least 325 feet. Headlights rated poor (the lowest) light 220 feet or less.
IIHS says LEDs generally perform better in its tests, but the organization has rated some halogen headlights higher than some LEDs. Some halogens have been rated acceptable (the second-highest), and some LED headlights as marginal (second-lowest) and even poor. However, only LEDs have earned good ratings.
Halogen light is formed from a combination of argon and nitrogen gases that are trapped within a heat-resistant envelope that also contains tungsten filament. When an electrical charge is sent to the tungsten by the battery of the vehicle, the filament heats to about 2,500 degrees Celsius, and this ignites the glow (light) you can see from outside the bulb. In short, this is what’s known as the incandescence process.
Pros/cons. After a time of anywhere from 450 to 1,000 hours — around 800 hours on average — the halogen light bulb hits the end of its lifecycle. In most cases, this is due to the fracture and ultimate evaporation of the tungsten filament. The pros and cons of halogen lights break down as follows:
Advantages: low cost, simple to replace, universal, dimmable
Disadvantages: heat prone, energy intensive, extra sensitive
Accessibility. The bright lights of the halogen have made it an easily accessible light across Europe and North America. Its initial popularity was driven by how easily the halogen bulbs supplied light — and that light was superior to all pre-existing types of bulbs. Even in the face of newer, formidable competition, many drivers still prefer the adequate light and range of coverage that a standard pair of halogen bulbs can provide for a motor vehicle.
Brightness. One of the main benefits of halogen bulbs is that they emit bright, warm white light. For drivers, halogen provides sufficient light along dark roads at night, as well as during midday rain and snow storms. The light from halogen bulbs activates instantly without flickering or taking seconds to warm up. In compact vehicles as well as larger cars, halogens cast a far enough range of light to allow for safe driving on highways as well as back roads in the dark of night.
Durable. While far from the longest-lasting of headlight types, halogen lights have a reasonable lifespan of 450 to 1,000 hours. On the open road, you can get plenty of mileage from a single pair of halogen lights, because they’re:
-Super long-lasting in moderately used vehicles.
-Reasonably long-lasting in heavily used vehicles.
If your late-hour driving routine averages out to 30 minutes per day, a pair of halogen bulbs could last nearly three years at their shortest probable lifespan. Even if your daily commute includes 60 minutes of driving after sundown, and you total around 350 hours per year of usage, halogen bulbs could last anywhere from eighteen months to three years, depending on the lifespan of a given pair.
Practical. For the car owner who only drives short distances each day, halogen lights are often the best option. There’s not much point investing in fancier lights when you’re not a frequent driver — especially when you’re not even a nighttime driver. For example, if you only use your car to go grocery shopping every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, chances are that you seldom use headlights one way or the other. No sense in sinking hard-earned money into fancier lights — unless you’re lighting nerds like us. We might anyway.
Affordable. Regardless, one of the biggest advantages of the halogen light is its low cost, which takes no skin off your back when you need to buy a replacement for one or both. A halogen headlight bulb typically sells for around $15, so if you do perform the change-out work yourself, you’d pay roughly $30 every two years to maintain halogen headlights on your vehicle. When you compare this to some of the other costs that are bound to go into the upkeep of your ride during a given year, the price that you’d pay for replacement halogen lights is one of the cheapest things on the checklist.
Changeable. When halogen bulbs do need to be replaced, the change-out process is simple. If you’re comfortable performing minor maintenance under the hood, it’s relatively easy to pop it open, twist out the old bulbs, and slot the new ones into place — the whole job can usually be completed in a matter of minutes. Basically, it can all be broken down as follows:
-Open the hood of the vehicle.
-Unscrew the old bulbs and remove.
-Slot new bulbs into place and fasten.
Of course, this assumes you can access the back of the headlight without removing the bumper, as many modern cars unfortunately now require.
Even if you do prefer to have the work done by a professional, the cost for labor is relatively low. As such, halogen lights — unlike many other car parts — won’t sideline your vehicle for any length of time when they fail.
Adjustability. Another advantage is the dimmable quality of halogen lights. Since the light can be emitted at several levels of intensity, manufactures are able to produce bulbs at different levels of brightness. Halogen lights can either switch from low to high beam with the flip of a switch, or a car might contain four headlights — two for low beam and two for high beam intensities. Your car can be equipped for early evenings and rainy days, as well as late-night drives through dark areas, and you don’t have to pay a fortune to have these lighting capabilities.
Universality. The halogen light has been the most widespread and popular type of headlight, both domestically and abroad, for nearly 40 years. As such, the halogen light is readily familiar to the vast majority of motorists because it’s the:
-Most universal headlight throughout the world.
-Most common headlight throughout North America.
The majority of cars on America’s highways are built with halogen lights in mind, so halogen lights are the most readily applicable headlight type when it comes to light replacement on most motor vehicles. Halogen lights also come in a number of different sizes, which further aids in their universal applicability.
Longevity. Due to their low cost and familiarity among the public, it’s safe to say that halogen lights will remain the first choice among most automakers for many years to come. Despite the competition from HID and LED lights, halogen lights will, in all likelihood, continue to be the most widespread headlight type on newer vehicles for at least another generation. That means if you buy a new car off the lot with halogen lights, you’ll probably never need to upgrade to one of the fancier light types for the lifespan of that car — unless you want to, of course.
Heat. Despite all these advantages, halogen lights also have some drawbacks. The biggest problem with halogen bulbs is the heat they generate. The heat is a direct result of the light itself, so it’s an inborn issue. With excess heat comes increased energy consumption, though, and that places more demand on an engine’s electrical resources. Halogen bulbs have two disadvantages that play into one another:
-Generates heat from the light itself.
-Consumes a lot of energy.
Consequently, halogen lights cannot be counted among the eco-friendliest of headlight options.
Sensitivity. Another disadvantage is the sensitivity of halogen bulbs, which are reactive to other substances, including fingerprints. You need to be careful when replacing a halogen light because fingerprints can cause a bulb to expire sooner. The problem is down to the oil on your fingertips, which can stick to a bulb and cause it to heat unevenly. If you opt to replace your halogen lights yourself, make sure you only touch them with a cotton cloth, and use rubbing alcohol if you need to clean them.
Out of all the headlights on the market, the LED undergoes the most unusual process to generate light. In the LED headlamp, negative electrons run against holes in a semiconductor to produce a light-emitting diode, hence the light’s name. When an electron enters a low-energy hole, a photon is released. The process is also known as electroluminescence. The frequency at which this process occurs — thousands of times per second — is what produces LED light.
Pros/cons. Though the LED light made its first appearance in 1993, it gained little market traction before the 2000s. LEDs have since been used on many vehicles from Toyota, Lexus, Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Mercedes. Though we believe that they are more so a trend that could be put in the advertising pamphlet for a car, we’ll summarize the real pros and cons here.
* Advantages: small size, energy efficient, brighter than halogen, doesn’t glare like HID
* Disadvantages: expensive, heats up neighboring assemblies, difficult to fit, needs cooling, sub-par in inclement weather due to higher Kelvin ratings.
Function. The light emitted from an LED is approximately two millimeters wide. In terms of brightness and coverage, LED headlights cover stretches of ground ahead with an intensity of whiteness that rivals HIDs and surpasses halogens. When driving up dark, twisty hills during graveyard hours, LED headlights will alert you to dangers in time enough to slow or stop your vehicle, such as when a deer or opossum crosses the road. As such, many drivers consider the LED headlight to be the perfect option because it provides white brightness that’s both far reaching and widespread — without emitting brightness at an overbearing level.
Powerful. As with HIDs, LED headlights require little power to function. The light within an LED bulb will instantly power on at its full brightness without flickering or any warm up time. Unlike HIDs, LED lights don’t need to work up to their maximal state, either. Once you hit the road in a LED-equipped vehicle, you can have the lights fully beaming the second you need them, whether you’re driving through a tunnel in the middle of the day or cruising a road across the countryside late at night. Basically, the three foremost reason why LEDs have become popular is that they:
-Utilize only a minimum amount of power.
-Power to full brightness instantly.
-Provide broad illumination in dark routes
With LED lights, no driving situation could ever be too dark or misty for clear navigation. In short, the HID vs. LED headlights debate favors the latter when it comes to brightness safety levels.
Focused. Another difference between HID and LED is that the LEDs offer focused rays that can be shaped in a variety of ways. LED lights are small in size, and this is convenient for automakers because it makes each unit lightweight and more easily applicable to various designs. Since the light can be designed in different ways, auto manufacturers aren’t just limited to one idea when it comes to the shape of LED headlights. That means automakers are able to tailor LED lights to suit the designs of particular vehicle models.
Efficient. LED lights consume little energy throughout the course of a given drive, so they’re like HIDs when it comes to energy efficiency. As such, LEDs are easy on a vehicle’s motor because the lights don’t drain power that might be needed by other engine assemblies. This helps the engine as a whole stay healthy since it requires very little of the vehicle’s overall power resources. Due to the lack of drainage on the engine itself and the fuel usage such activity entails, LED headlights could even reward you with minor savings on fuel costs.
Hot. If LED lights have an Achilles heel, it’s the issue of temperature. Simply put, LEDs need more cooling to operate than do halogen and xenon headlights. This is one of the few differences between HID and LED headlights that favors HIDs, which don’t have cooling or heating issues. LED headlights, on the other hand, have a strange and somewhat troublesome relationship with heat. While the LEDs themselves don’t heat up, they can trigger heat in surrounding assemblies and along connected wiring harnesses. Therefore, it’s somewhat arguable as to whether LEDs could truly be considered a heat-free headlight option.
Complications. A closely related downside to the LED is the cooling system that accompanies the light. Simply put, LED lights are difficult to fit into a car because the cooling system is meant to be placed in the engine bay. For the most part, this is a contradiction because the engine bay is the part of a vehicle where temperatures typically rise. When an LED headlight has been awkwardly retrofitted, the cooling system could face challenges trying to stay cool when the lights are on and the motor runs. This is another one of the big differences between HID and LED headlights, which line up as follows:
-LEDs require more cooling than HIDs.
-LEDs trigger heat in neighboring engine parts, unlike HIDs.
-LEDs are accompanied by complicated cooling systems.
Limitations. The trouble surrounding heat triggers and cooling systems is the reason why LEDs were originally only used as tail lights — lights at the back of an automobile don’t require such complex measures to operate. Tail lights, for example, are passive lights that merely mark a vehicle’s presence to all drivers that follow from behind. Tail lights aren’t used as a driving aid, so they don’t require the energy or complex processes that are necessary to light up the road ahead.
Cost As with HIDs, LED lights are expensive compared to the low-cost halogen bulb. So, the choice of LED lights should factor in for your practical needs as a driver. Do you frequently drive at night, or rarely? Do you spend many hours per day in your car, even in times of rain, or do you seldom use your vehicle more than twice weekly? If you’re the kind of person who keeps their fuel costs safely within the two-figure range each month, LED lights might be somewhat of an overindulgence. When it comes to the “xenon vs. LED headlights” slugfest over price, neither is a bargain.
By contrast, LED headlights could be one of the best investments you’ll ever make in your car if you’re the kind of person who drives and travels by car a great deal. If you spend 12 or more hours per week driving between the hours of 6:00 pm and 6:00 am, LED headlights could actually be the way to go due to their virtually unlimited lifespan. This is another big difference between halogen and LED lights — halogens aren’t nearly as helpful during nighttime driving.
Halogen headlights used to rule the world. However, LED headlights are the new sought-after headlight, with conversion kits, aftermarket kits, and many other products available.
You should also consider the color temperature of the lights, the lumens, whether you want brighter light (or whiter light), and whether or not you want less power or more power. Most headlights are covered by a solid warranty, and high quality HID bulbs are also available.
Consumer Reports has even reviewed LED headlights (along with halogen headlights), so they have truly become mainstream. Whether you go with halogen or LED, your car should always be properly outfitted for your chosen type of lights, and it should also always pass all relevant safety tests.