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Automotive LED Lighting Explained

Incandescent bulbs haven't developed a great deal in the 140 years they’ve existed. Conversely, the progression of LED technology is very rapid – leaving no doubt that the future of automotive lighting belongs to LEDs.

With each model year, more and more automakers are phasing out old and faithful incandescent light bulbs invented in the 1800s, and replacing them with LED lights for interior and exterior applications. To explain, “LED” stands for Light Emitting Diodes – a form of transistor doped with a substrate that emits light when current is applied. If an incandescent bulb can figuratively be thought of as analog technology, then LEDs are the “digital” equivalent.

Because LEDs can be installed in various ways and locations not possible with incandescent or fluorescent lighting, unique applications are created. In this article, we’ll look at a few such advantages LEDs offer.

LED Layout

Led
The internal layout of a light emitting diode (LED).

LEDs have a number of advantages over incandescent lighting that are very attractive for automotive use:

  • They are very resistant to vibrations
  • They can often last for the life of the vehicle
  • They can be baked into moisture proof casings that withstand all kinds of harsh environments
  • They light up much quicker than incandescent bulbs
  • They are extremely compact
  • They can be made to emit different colors
  • They run cool
  • They provide more light per supplied watt than incandescent bulbs

Looking at a typical LED light assembly designed to replace a conventional bulb, you’ll notice it has a center shaft with numerous small LEDs placed on it. This is because each of those single LEDs has a smaller light output (measured in lumens) than an incandescent bulb does. But when they light up together, an equal or greater amount of light is produced.

Putco Stop/Brake Light Replacement Bulb
LED bulb assemblies such as the Putco Stop/Brake Light Replacement Bulb shown here typically feature a number of small LEDs facing in a variety of directions.

Individual LEDs also emit light in a very narrow angle. Thus, to make an LED light radiate evenly in all directions the way a normal bulb would, those individual LEDs are placed strategically around the shaft to create full radiance.

Thin Flexible LED Strips
Individual LEDs can also be placed on thin flexible strips designed to be mounted anywhere for a custom glow.

For custom applications, individual LEDs are also available on thin, flexible strips which can be mounted anywhere (more on this further below in this article).

LED Lights First Saw Automotive Use On Corvette Brake Lights

Lights

LED lights first saw automotive use on the 1984 Corvette, which was equipped with an LED center high mount stop lamp. Using LEDs in brake lights was (and is) a natural fit, since they illuminate 0.2 seconds faster than an incandescent bulb does – giving drivers behind an earlier warning in the event of a sudden stop. That’s a plus at any speed – especially at highway velocity of 75 mph, when that extra time translates to 21 extra feet of braking distance – a factor can literally make the difference between life and death.

Because LED brake lights can reduce odds of rear-end collisions and lower average insurance claims for specific vehicles equipped with them, automakers have pretty much adopted them as standard equipment for safety as well as style. Some vehicles even use LED technology to brighten the brake lights as pedal pressure increases.

LEDs Make Great Turn Signals, Side Marker Lights, Fog Lights, Tail Lights, And More

Because LEDs use a fraction of the electricity regular bulbs do and last up to 25 times as long, LED bulbs are a great upgrade anywhere on your vehicle. For example, we’ve got LED tail light assemblies, LED turn signal lights, LED roof lights, and even LED lights for pickup bed areas. If you enjoy off-roading, you’ll appreciate our selection of LED off-road lights and light bars, and you may want to read our related article Off-Road Fog Lights - When the Road Ends and the Fog Begins.

The brightness and color of LEDs also makes them a natural fit for fog lights – increasing your safety by allowing you to see further, and by making it easier for other drivers to see you. To this end, we’ve got entire replacement LED fog light units. Or if you’re interested in a simple LED bulb swap for your current fog lights, our article LED Fog Light Bulbs Brighten Your View on Foggy Drives will tell you everything you need to know.

An Array Of Colors From A Single Bulb

LEDs

LEDs that can change color are known as “Red-Green-Blue” (RGB) LEDs. RGB LEDs may contain three different LEDs in one unit, with separate ones for red, green, and blue. Or, a single LED coated with three different substances can emit red, green and blue light when current is applied. By varying the voltage, any combination of the three colors can be created, and they can change between hues gradually or quickly.

All Colors Shown In Visible Spectrum

Red, green, and blue mixed together at equal brightness is perceived by the human eye as white light, while other mixes take the form of various colors. This effect is also used in printing where red, green and blue ink are used to transfer all colors in the visible spectrum onto paper.

The multicolor feature of LEDs also makes it possible to make one light assembly perform multiple functions. For example, a red rear driving light can brighten during braking, blink amber on turns, and turn white while the vehicle is reversing. Or, white daytime running lights can change from white to amber and double as turn signals by flashing.

LEDs can be made to light up simultaneously as a single unit, or sequentially to create "flowing turn signals", all depending on the configuration of the circuitry governing the LEDs. Examples of how this LED feature can be used for practical purposes are the PlasmaGlow Fire and Ice LED Tailgate Light Bar, and the Blade LED Tailgate Light Bar by Putco lighting.

LEDs Can Hide Away

Bright Blue LEDs Hidden Under Car Body

Because LEDs are small in size, they can be built into thin light strips which can be twisted, turned, and placed in tight locations where there isn’t room for conventional lighting. This means LEDs can be tucked behind your grille, in the engine bay, underneath the vehicle, around inner wheel edges, inside, or anywhere your imagination dictates!

In our Accessory Lighting section, you’ll find LED strips and tubes, LED underbody lights, interior LED lights, LED exterior lights, and much more. For more details on these types of LEDs, our related article LED Underbody Lights Give Your Ride an Other-Worldly Glow will be a very interesting read. It also includes LED wheel ring kits such as this one from Oracle Lighting.

Flexible Plasmaglow Lightning Eyes LED Headlight Kit
The flexible Plasmaglow Lightning Eyes LED Headlight Kit is one example of LED light strips that can be mounted between headlights and the body, underneath dashboards, or below doors to illuminate the ground.

Another way that LED compactness is put to use is via daytime running light strips and bars that can be added on to any vehicle not so equipped. Installing aftermarket LED running lights can actually save you money if your vehicle currently uses the low beams as automatic running lights. With LED running lights installed, you can turn off the expensive incandescent bulbs in your low beams and thus prolong their lifespan considerably.

Headlights

Headlights

Recent technological advances in temperature management have brought us LEDs that work effectively as automotive headlight bulbs – producing more light than incandescents, with the typical long-lasting benefits of LEDs. And as you might imagine, LED headlights are also becoming more common as OEM equipment.

Lumen 7-Inch LED For Lights Set
LED Bulbs Set

If your vehicle wasn’t originally equipped with LED headlights, we’ve got some easy ways you can upgrade. The first is to swap out your entire existing headlight assemblies with LED headlight assemblies. This is a great way to transform your front fascia with a new look. In our LED headlight assemblies section, you’ll find stylish custom designs that range from mild to wild – with black or colored backgrounds, projector beam lights, halo rings, swooping accent light strips, and much more!

The second way to upgrade your headlamps is to keep your original headlamp assemblies, but swap in replacement LED headlight bulbs in place of the OEM halogen ones. This is easy to do, because the LED headlight conversion kits we offer are "plug-n-play," with bulb bases designed to fit into the same socket and mate with the same wiring connector(s) as OEM bulbs.

LED Light Bulbs Variety Gallery

For more details and product recommendations regarding LED headlight bulbs, we invite you to read our informative articles How To Choose The Best Custom Headlamp Assembly, LED Headlight Conversion Bulbs - The Cost-Effective Way to Better Lighting, and What do I Need to Know About Installing LED Bulbs into my Car?

When you consider the dazzling color range, overall styling possibilities, long lifespan, and robust durability of LEDs, it’s easy to understand that the future belongs to them. Plus, their low energy consumption makes them perfect for electric vehicles which are quickly becoming the smart way to maximize automotive efficiency. It’s clear that before long, LEDs will be standard equipment on every new vehicle sold in the U.S.

At CARiD, we’re enthusiastic about the future of LEDs. And, we’re keeping up with technology as it advances – consistently bringing you the newest and most up-to-date automotive LED lighting products available anywhere. Plus, our knowledgeable staff will gladly help you select the best products for your vehicle; they’ll also be there for you if there’s a problem later. So don’t hesitate to give us a call seven days a week!

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