Not long ago, a headlight was a headlight. Every vehicle featured halogen bulbs and a series of mirrors. They offered fair effectiveness and longevity, and were cheap to replace. But the game has changed dramatically. With the advent of LED, HID, and laser beam (yeah, laser beam) technology, consumers have a number of choices. And, answers to the questions “Which are the best headlights?” and “Which are the best headlights for me?” are not the same.
The Worst Headlights
In the most recent study by the IIHS, only four out of 100 models received a “good” ranking.
The IIHS records visibility data at different angles, heights, and distances. Unsurprisingly, vehicles with standard halogen bulbs have scored poorly. Halogens are dimmer and don’t project as well as newer alternatives. But the IIHS also considers how a vehicle’s headlights affect other drivers.
Reportedly, a number of vehicles leave the factory with poorly tuned headlights. According to the NHTSA, headlights should be between 22 and 54 inches from the ground and be horizontally oriented so that they don’t direct light into the eyes of oncoming drivers. But if you’ve ever driven on a road with other vehicles, you know those rules are not being followed. At some point, everyone has had the pure white light of a B-class hypergiant star beamed straight into their eyes via the rearview mirror.
Well Aligned – Much Maligned
Even well aligned headlights can cause problems for other drivers’ sight. When a car passes over any sort of bump or grade, their lights will flash upwards. When those lights are LED or bi-xenon, it can be very distracting for forward traffic. This issue is further complicated in North America where it seems like 90% of vehicles on the road are trucks. When a truck is trailering or hauling a significant load, the weight alters the angle at which the headlights project.
Automatically self-levelling technology does exist, and is mandatory in new vehicles in Europe. Unfortunately, it has not been mandated by North American regulators except on vehicles with bi-xenon headlights installed by the manufacturer.
The Best Headlights
So, those are some of the challenges that make headlights poor. But you’re probably wondering what makes a headlight both safe and effective. Technically, the best headlights on the road are BMW’s new laser-powered headlights. These ultra-modern lights are 1,000 times more powerful than LEDs, have an effective life of 30,000 hours, and consume 50% less power. Plus, laser-powered headlights are adaptable – with self-levelling being the bare minimum. Theoretically, they will be able to highlight specific obstacles and even project information onto the road like warnings or diagnostic information. But, unless you have $10,000 for new headlights, you should probably choose the second-best available technology, LED.
The Best Headlights for You
LED is the best affordable headlight technology available. LEDs consume very little power and generate very little heat (this is a symptom of energy waste). More importantly, they can produce bright white light. While HIDs are slightly brighter, the difference in illumination is overshadowed by the fact that HIDs are more prone to failure. In fact, LEDs last roughly five times longer (as long as 50,000 hours of use!). If you opt for an LED assembly, it should last as long as your vehicle does.