The future of light

Vehicle lights by ZKW are the product of burgeoning innovation in an exciting design.

In our development vehicles, the ZKW Development Cars, we can test and optimize new technologies. At our disposal are a BMW 7 Series, a BMW 3 Series and an Audi A1.

Into the future with innovation

Research fascinates. It also drives development in the right direction. The result is innovation based on decades of experience – innovation that sets trends, instead of just following them. Our employees in the R&D department ensure that the key technologies of tomorrow match the needs of our customers today. Because research and development is always a process that has to keep moving, we move forward on both customer orders and on our own developments. And we do it all against the background of a corporate strategy that focuses on making complex products and processes even more safe and efficient.

To do so, the ZKW Group’s R&D department has one of the largest lighting channels in the world, and works with highly modern measurement technologies that assess prototypes and series production headlamps alike for their light output, light color, and homogeneity. We use it to continue working on innovative solutions that are the key to continually expanding our technological advantage – and our customers’ advantage as well.

Lighting technologies

Insights into our technologies

More power and less energy loss. The BMW i8 hybrid sports car will be the world’s first series-production vehicle to offer revolutionary laser high beams starting in fall of 2014. The “Laser boost” offers a significantly higher light intensity than LEDs, with around a 600 meter illumination range. It supplements the high-tech sports car’s powerful and intense LED headlights, doubling their previous lighting range. In addition, laser lights are significantly smaller and require around 30 percent less energy than even energy-saving LED lights. In addition to offering high power and good efficiency, the system is also especially safe: The enclosed, crash-safe laser lights are diffused through a specialized phosphorous element and converted into a bright white high beam. This is perceived as more pleasant by the human eye, and also significantly improves vision during night driving. The laser emitting diodes provide 3 watts of power and generate a luminous flux of around 500 lumens with a 0.3 millimeter light beam. This means the technology is even superior to LEDs, that achieve around 250 lumens with a 1 millimeter light beam diameter.

The optical efficiency (the ratio between the light generated to the light output on the street) for laser lights is extraordinarily high, at 70 percent. In comparison, LEDS achieve around 40 percent, and xenon lights just 30 percent. The more powerful, concentrated laser light therefore provides better performance and range, while also offering smaller optics systems and headlight housings. This is reflected in the highly compact headlight design of the BMW i8. To master the tough challenges of the new laser technology, we used new development and simulation processes.

Field tests show that many drivers activate their high beams too late at night then – in fear of blinding oncoming traffic – switch back to low beams too quickly. However, studies prove that accident rates climb sharply at night: difficult to see pedestrians are in especially high danger. Road users don’t need to be afraid of too much light: An automatic high beam assistant significantly increases the time high beams are switched on. A non-glare system allows high beams to be on for up to 90 percent of driving time – which also increases traffic safety.

ZKW has been developing and producing glare-free high beam systems for years, based on both highly complex mechatronic systems and on next-generation systems as well. The Matrix-lite by ZKW uses the specialized features of new LED light sources: Targeted activation of individual diodes allows the vehicle to directly generate glare-free high beams by actively and electronically switching individual LED segments on and off.

Intelligent systems, in which the light distribution automatically adapts to specific traffic and weather situations, provide much better driving comfort and safety than traditional low beams. “Adaptive Frontlighting System” (AFS) solutions, which offer a large number of innovative functions, are based on the development of dynamic cornering lights.

Highway light: The light beam is raised at high speeds, and the intensity and thereby the range of the light are increased. This improves reaction times and safety in hazardous situations.

Dynamic cornering lights: The light beam is swiveled into the curve depending on the steering wheel angle to provide a better view.

Rural road light: The rural road light provides a classic low beam light distribution. The light beam has a longer range on the right side of the road, helping drivers to recognize pedestrians sooner. A cut-off line ensures that oncoming traffic isn’t blinded by light in the opposing lane.

Poor weather light: Targeted alteration of the light distribution improves safety in bad weather. for example, less light is emitted into the area directly in front of the vehicle, in order to reduce reflections on puddles (and glare blinding oncoming traffic).

City light: Avoids blinding other road users thanks to a horizontal cut-off line. In addition, the area directly in front of the vehicle is lit better in order to recognize obstacles earlier.

Pedestrians are hit four times more often at night as they are during the day. A night view system in the GZA recognizes all moving objects in the field of view, even if they haven’t yet been illuminated by the headlight. A clever image processing system identifies potential hazards and marks them with a sharply defined beam of light if there is the increased likelihood of a collision. The driver’s attention is guided directly to the recognized dangerous object. This lets drivers save valuable reaction time to help them avoid accidents with pedestrians or wild animals.

ZKW brought the first marking light to the market for the BMW 7. It is based on LED technology and equipped with a swiveling projection lens.

Is it possible to catch the light, or to shape it? It is. We give it a shell, a support, and an unmistakable character. We understand that headlight and signal light design is a key component of modern vehicle design, because we are aware of the growing importance of the “eyes” of a vehicle.

By using LEDs in combination with fiber optics, illuminated plates, and bodies, we are able to eliminate most technical limitations when it comes to our designs. That’s how we can so skillfully accentuate characteristic, brand-specific features both in daytime and nighttime operations.

That’s why we derived the characteristic double tube design for the BMW 6 from a transparent, freely shapable 3D body: we developed an innovation for the BMW 7 in which low beams and daytime driving lights come from the same aperture in both tubes, creating a uniform appearance any time of day. Safety needs to be functional – ideally, it would also be beautiful to look at too.

Autonomous driving from the light manufacturers point of view

On of the biggest questions is: “How will the role of light change when the car is driving itself?” This question hasn´t been answered yet. We are already concentrating on the future of light.

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Analyze and displaying signage

After a relaxed day with friends at the lake, you are cycling home after darkness has fallen. The path home runs through open land, is nicely paved, but poorly lighted and is a potential source of danger for you. If you would come across a self-driving car, thanks to the lighting signals emitted by the car, you could see the direction of travel and especially the route guidance of the car and react accordingly. Without these guiding light signals on the ground, you would only know from the blinder that the car is turning. That’s how it works nowadays. You could only guess the path it is taking.

Making car sharing cars more individual

Just imagine: You are in the office far past midnight and are completely overtired. Your trip home is a half-hour ride with the car, and there is no public transport nearby. Your choice falls on one of the comfortable and always-available “urban cabs”. These are self-driving cars you can use for a few hours a month with your membership. Route, pickup time and location are quickly entered online, and your vehicle is ready immediately after booking. To be able to identify which car is reserved for you, you have to look at the light projected on the ground. This marks the car you ordered. Then there’s nothing standing in the way of a relaxed drive home. At the end of the drive, a light notifies you to exit and says goodbye.

Superimposing dynamic zebra crossings

Reading the newspaper, surfing on your smart phone and writing messages, chatting with other people and crossing the street mindlessly without forethought or visual contact. Numerous accidents are caused by exactly that. Light and sensors will be used in the future for this. You step off of the curb onto the street and the automated car recognizes this immediately and stops. In addition, the car will project a zebra crossing with a beam of light on the street to signal that the street can be crossed. The lighting solution of the future will also project a red stop line on the oncoming lane so that oncoming traffic knows that you want to cross the street.

Not blinding analog road users

Actually, this is already a reality. We aren’t blinding anyone anymore with modern headlamps that we already develop and produce. Our product portfolio includes matrix headlamps, laser headlamps or fully adaptive LED lighting solutions. Everything is brightly illuminated and there can be easy targeted dipping as needed. Self-driving cars will not need high beams in the future, because no one will be blinded again. This technology must be continually developed for people who want to control a car themselves. Looking at it that way, future, present and past are always closely linked.

Display braking path, depending on situation

When cars drive themselves, we’ll hardly notice where we are and which route we are currently on. All functions are controlled automatically. But excluded from this is the physics that do not want to bend to the new age. Everyone knows the formula: Stop path = Reaction path + brake path. One can assume that the reaction path will reduced considerably, because the sensors brake simultaneously with the preceding vehicle. The brake path does not depend on the speed, however. Physical influences such as a wet road or tire pressure must also be taken into consideration. To know whether our automated car has a sufficient safety distance, the preceding vehicle, depending on braking intensity, can display a distance strip or a safety zone on the road.

Making vehicles visible regardless of the environment

Did you already notice that the starry sky disappears in cities? Astronomers first noted the dark side of the light-flooded cities. The observation capabilities of observatories near large cities were limited by the flood of light in recent decades. Today, observatories have to be on high peaks, far from metropoles and protected from light contamination. These “light bells” over urban areas can span hundreds of kilometers. If you want to experience and observe the Milky Way, shooting stars or comets, it’s only possible far from the cities. For this reason, we are presenting a scenario in which light only plays a role in certain situations during automated driving. If you are in a self-driving car on open land or in a natural setting, you aren’t creating any light contamination, because you are hardly emitting any light. The vehicle only starts to brighten the contours with the “marking light” when you need to be seen. This results in a saving of energy even during cross-country driving.

Driving in a convoy, keeping distance and optimizing distance

Personal and heavy vehicles can drive very close to each other, completely autonomously and interlinked. Theoretically, truck convoys can be many hundred meters long. Convoys can save fuel through the slipstream, through the logistics of goods staff costs can be saved and certain goods can even become less expensive. The right lane on the motorway could become an automated convoy of trucks. When entering the motorway, the acceleration strips become too short very quickly if the convoy of trucks seems to be endless. Light can help in this situation. As soon as the trucks recognize that another vehicle wants to use the roadway, it can open a window and the light shows the other vehicle that it can pass the convoy and enter traffic.

Identify safe zones

A family is taking a cycling excursion on a beautiful autumn day. The parents and children are riding in a convoy. Children, even though they are usually very disciplined, can often act very erratic in street traffic. It is not possible for them to estimate possible distances and speeds of objects coming towards them, as adults do. Light can help here too. With pools of light around the vehicle, the safe zone and distance are marked to counter the danger. Even if the car passes the entire family, the pool of light gives a feeling of security.

Preventing collisions

Because you are engrossed in an exciting book, the outside world passes you by unnoticed. You are in your car and have pressed the “Home” button out of the corner of your eye. Shortly thereafter, you are again submersed in your novel. You are completely relying on the sensors, technology and conveniences that come with automated driving. But not every road user can do this to the same extent. The e-bike user in the adjacent lane must also rely on the sensors of the automated vehicle, but in another way. He only sees the light signals and markings directly on or around the car that show him which movements the car will undertake in the coming moment. Light acts here as a communication medium, it can prevent collisions and make the world a little bit safer.

Further contents


Great electronics

The reasons we need vehicle lights go far beyond simple lighting. ZKW is developing powerful background helpers so that modern headlights can bring their diverse functions to the streets in the best light possible: Highly precise electronics that make innovative lighting technology possible. After all, powerful lighting takes smart control.

Read more

A dazzling innovation

Just a few thousandths of a millimeter in size, but an absolute innovation in vehicle lighting: Laser lights. They allow not only for new headlight designs, but also make street traffic safer.

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Autonomous driving and the importance of the right light

City center, a busy street. A pedestrian wants to cross the road, and tries to make eye contact with the driver. But there’s no one behind the wheel. The passengers are sitting comfortably in the back seat. Nevertheless, the communication works. The fully automated vehicle recognizes the pedestrian, brakes independently, and projects a virtual crosswalk on the asphalt. That means the person can cross the lit street safely, after which the vehicle can go on its way.

Read more