Much like other aspects of our vehicles, headlight bulbs have experienced several revisions and developments as time has passed. While headlight bulbs do serve a relatively simple purpose, they are surprisingly intricate pieces of kit.
Not only are there multiple kinds of headlights, certain types can and should only be used at certain points in the day. Understanding the types of headlights available, as well as their pros and cons can help you make better decisions when buying a new car or replacing your existing headlights.
Join us and brush up on your headlight knowledge as we delve into the history of the headlight, the types available, and their pros and cons.
The exact date is tricky to determine, but sources suggest that car headlights were first developed around the 1880s, around the same time as the first gas powered vehicle. These early headlights were much, much different than what we have today; they were powered with acetylene, a flammable gas that produces a bright flame, illuminating the road ahead.
While acetylene headlights did fulfil their job of lighting up the road, having such a flammable gas contained in the very front of the vehicle did pose some security risks. As a result, vehicle manufacturers were keen to ditch gas-powered headlights as soon as they possibly could.
Unfortunately, this ended up taking about 10 years. The first electric headlights came in 1898, with early adoption remaining quite low due to some teething problems. 10 years after that, electric headlights really took off thanks to the introduction of a full electric system by Cadillac and Ford.
Until the 2010s, halogen headlights dominated the headlight market. This is because halogen bulb technology has been around since the end of the second world war. Cheap to produce and readily available, halogen bulbs make for an inexpensive approach to road luminance, giving them many years in the spotlight.
LED headlights are perhaps the most popular type of headlight on modern cars. As their name suggests, LED headlights make use of LEDs (light emitting diodes) to provide luminance. They are more energy efficient than halogen bulbs, generate less heat, and therefore, tend to last longer. The only caveat to this is the increased cost.
Xenon headlights are less common than LED or halogen lights, but provide the highest levels of light. They are powered via high intensity discharge (HID) bulbs that are filled with Xenon gas. When the gas ignites, it produces an extremely bright, white light.
Due to their similar light levels, LED and Xenon headlights are often compared the most. To give each a fair shot, let’s look at their commonalities and pit them against each other.
While xenon lights can reliably produce a high volume of light, LED headlights tend to produce more brightness when measured in lumens. LED headlights can go as high as 10,000 lumens, while xenon headlights are limited to 8,000. While it’s certainly not an all-out victory, LED headlights do come out ahead in this aspect.
Both LED and xenon headlights are comparable in size, especially at their base. However, xenon lights need to comfortably retain the xenon gas within, which usually means a larger bulb area when compared to more compact LEDs. LEDs are also usually more flexible, and can therefore be produced in smaller sizes if needed. Bigger headlights mean less compatibility, so LEDs win here, too.
Price is a tricky aspect to judge, as costs fluctuate from time to time. Despite this, xenon headlights tend to consistently cost less than LED headlights. The difference is only slight, with a replacement xenon kit usually costing around £10-20 less than LEDs.
In terms of their lifespan, it’s a clear win for LEDs. LED headlights are rated for around 20,000 hours of power-on time, whereas xenon headlights are only rated for as high as 5,000.
Using the same criteria for LED vs xenon, let’s compare LEDs against their closest competitor, halogen headlights.
Interestingly, the brightness levels of LEDs and halogen headlights ends up as a draw. Both sets can comfortably achieve as much as 10,000 lumens, except that LEDs do so while consuming 85% less energy. Couple this with their instantaneous nature, and it’s clear that LEDs are a winner in some aspects of this fight.
Both LED and halogen headlights tend to arrive in a similar form factor. Therefore, it’s another draw in the size department.
Due to a greater degree of availability, halogen headlights are often found to be less expensive than LEDs. The difference is quite substantial, actually; a replacement LED kit can cost anywhere from £50 - £80, whereas a simple halogen bulb costs as little as £20 at the very highest end.
Traditional halogen lamps last up to 1,500 hours. LEDs, however, last 13 times as long, with a lifespan of 20,000 hours.
With this knowledge, you’ll be well prepared to make the decision between a modern motor with LED headlights versus a slightly aged vehicle with halogen bulbs.
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