Brief history of the car light

The first car drivers still had to make do with headlights with candlelight. When gottlieb daimler built the world’s first motor vehicle with an internal combustion engine in 1886, candles were used for illumination. These were simply taken over from the carriages. A lot has happened since then, from the development of the bosch light to the LED technology of today.

Electric light

When cars became faster and visibility was also required at dusk and in the dark, people also experimented with petroleum lamps. Gas lamps with carbide replaced the candles. But cross-country travel with carbide lamps was a tedious affair: the carbide lamps had to be relit each time. They also meant a constant fire hazard. Moreover, the visibility was only a few meters.

carbide lamp (picture: wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
in the beginning there was the "carbide" light, here on a bicycle

in 1913, bosch brought electricity to the car with the help of the generator. This operated the world’s first electric headlight, the bosch light. This was a quantum leap. The bosch light could be switched on and off at the touch of a button and visibility improved many times over. The headlights were of parabolic design, which was to remain the standard until the 1990s.

Bosch light poster

Bosch light (picture: bosch)
in 1913, bosch brought electricity into the car with the aid of the generator


With the 540 K, mercedes presented the bilux light in 1936. Here, for the first time, there was a bulb with two filaments in the reflector of the headlamp. This technology was now standard until the 70s.

In 1968, an exotic highlight attracted attention: the headlights of the citroen DS could light up around the corner.


with the mercedes SL (R107) the H4-lamp entered the car in 1971. It was the first bulb with halogen technology for low and high beam, which simply doubled the range of vision.

Halogen lamp

Halogen lamp (picture: osram)
halogen lamps are still in use today like the H4 night breaker plus

Xenon and more

In 1991, BMW introduced the first xenon light in the 7 series, which caused quite a furor. And in the same year gas discharge lamps burned in the mercedes research vehicle F 100. Before that, headlights with gas discharge technology were used to illuminate halls o.a. Reserved. Dynamic headlight range control made its debut in the e-class in 1995. For the first time, so-called DE headlights with an ellipsoidal design were introduced to the market. It allowed to build headlights very small but with high light output. But this technology is not limited to the xenon bulbs. Super-DE headlights with free-form reflectors increased light output to 52 percent.

Xenon D3S

D3S xenon (picture: osram)
the xenon light from 1991 in the car – in the picture a D3S lamp

In 1999, mercedes introduced bi-xenon technology in the CL C215, which for the first time also provided gas-discharge high beams. Static cornering lights were introduced in 2002, followed by dynamic cornering lights in 2003. The technology had already been around for several years, but legislative hurdles had to be cleared first. Mercedes introduced its intelligent light system (ILS) in the e-class in 2006, an adaptive headlamp system with variable light distribution that automatically adjusted to weather, light and driving conditions.

The next innovation in automotive lighting technology was called LED. Cadillac was the first manufacturer to use the light-emitting diode, which had previously only served as a check lamp, in the third stop lamp in 1992. From 2000 onward, many manufacturers used red leds in taillights and brake lights, and later also in turn signal lights. The reason for the rapid growth in recent years: on the one hand, the technology is considered durable, and on the other hand, it is extremely energy-efficient.

Citroen Picasso Hella LED

Citroen picasso LED (picture: hella)
leds have revolutionized car lighting

Shuji nakamura, a U.S. physicist of Japanese origin, developed the blue light-emitting diode in 1993. this finally made all light colors possible. Audi was the first manufacturer to use white leds as daytime running lights in the exterior of the audi A8 W12 in 2004.

In 2007, Lexus became the first mass-produced car in the world to launch front headlights with LED technology in the LS 600h. The first full-LED headlights, which generate low and high beams, were launched in 2008 in the audi R8. Hella had already presented the technology at the IAA in 2005. 2010 mercedes presented the new CLS (C 218) with full-LED headlights and ILS (at audi AFL) as optional equipment. This meant that the features previously reserved for xenon headlamps (country road light, highway light, extended fog light, active cornering light and cornering light) were also available for LED headlamps. New xenon bulbs made a 20 % higher color temperature possible from 2010 onwards.

Electrically controlled LED headlights are the state of the art. 2013 audi presented the matrix LED. The intention: to block out light where it does harm (e.g. in the car).B. oncoming traffic), and full light where it is needed; all without mechanics. in 2014 mercedes followed suit with the multibeam LED headlight.


BMW and audi make it possible for laser technology to be used in car headlights. 2014 the laser high beam in the matrix LED headlights was presented in the audi R18 e-tron quattro at the 24 hours of le mans. BMW led the way in series production of the M4 GTS.

Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), as we know them from smartphone displays, are the next and probably not yet the last development step in automotive lighting technology. Audi is aiming for the start of series production in 2018.


the speed of innovation in recent years is particularly evident in the short history of automotive lighting technology. 2015 was not proclaimed by the UN as the international year of light for nothing.

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