The lights on your car, both on the exterior and interior, are often an overlooked feature that we just expect to work. Just as you turn the ignition key, you’re welcomed by a slew of information coming from the dash. And as you hit the road, turning indicators, brakes and headlights signal your intent to other drivers. Having lights that function properly is not only safe but regulated by law. That being said, timely replacements are necessary for any roadworthy vehicle.
Most cars are distinguished by their light designs that paint an overall picture of the car. Signature headlamps and rear lights are the first things that tell us which car is which, especially at night. Some will turn heads, while others are, well, just there. No matter if you’ve just bought your new pride and joy, or cruising in an old lend-me-down, you can add a little flare by going with additional lights, something that will set you apart from the crowd.
Types of Automotive Lights
All passenger cars are required to have functioning front headlamps, front position lights, front and rear indicators, rear brake and tail lights and reversing lights as standard.
Front headlamps can be either high-beam for use on the open road with little traffic, or in dark unlit settings, and low-beam for high traffic frequency, where the safety of incoming traffic is key. Most new cars have an auto light setting, automatically turning on headlamps and adjusting the required brightness levels according to the conditions. They also feature self-levelling, automatically adjusting the height of the beam. Cornering headlamps can be optioned for better visibility in corners and turns.
Front position lights are used at night when your vehicle is parked. Front and rear indicating lights, or blinkers, are used during turning or merging and have amber housings. These are also found on side mirrors for better visibility. Rear brake lights glow red when you’re braking, tail lights warn other vehicles behind you, and reversing lights shine white to show you’re backing up. Most vehicles also require lights around the registration plate. For detailed regulations for lights in all road vehicles in Australia see here.
In the interior, you’ll find dome lights in the centre of the roof lining, map lights above the rear-view mirror, side-illumination lights above each door, and red door lights when doors open. All lights have some form of brightness adjustment and use different automotive light bulbs that you can spec in a new car, or get aftermarket.
Fitting additional lights to your car will give you better visibility or extra brightness in the interior. Fog lights are the first option you should consider for areas with regular fog and haze, or when going off-road. Many drivers also use these with low beams in dark urban settings. Daytime Running Lights are a feature on most new cars that automatically light up when you press the accelerator. And for the interior, you have the option of ambient lighting, often in different colours, accessible either through dash menus or as LED strips that you can add to an older car.
The working end of the lights are the bulbs. Different light bulbs can be seen in the headlamps of different cars, with older cars having halogen bulbs, cars from the noughties having mainly a xenon setup, and most new cars featuring LED lights. Some cars have a mixed setup to reduce costs, and newer compact cars might have LED lights as an optional extra.
Halogen bulbs are the oldest type of car light bulbs. They have a tungsten filament that glows when fed electricity. The bulb is filled with a mixture of inert and halogen gas, which increases the light output and shell life. However, brightness and longevity are significantly lower than newer light bulb types like xenon or LED, which have replaced halogens in front headlamps. Halogen bulbs are cheap though, and emit enough light for car interiors. Most dome lights and map lights have halogen bulbs.
Xenon or High-Intensity-Discharge (HID) bulbs produce light by creating an electric arc between two electrodes. Here, the xenon helps establish the initial strike in the arc. Xenon lights emit a much brighter, bluish light. They have steadily replaced halogens where more intense brightness is needed, like high beams. They are also increasingly found in newer fog lights. High-quality xenon bulbs will outlast halogens, and consume roughly half the power while emitting almost twice as much light.
The newest type of lights used in cars are LEDs or Light Emitting Diodes. LEDs produce light by passing an electric current through a semiconductor – the diode, or a series of diodes – which in turn emit photons, or put plainly, light. LEDs emit intense white light while consuming relatively less power. Considering their efficiency, LEDs are the perfect fit for Daytime Running Lights. They also feature newer head and tail light designs with comparable brightness to Xenon lights. And with fewer parts, they’re the most durable. However, as a relatively new technology, LEDs do come at a higher cost.
Changing Lights and Bulbs
Maintain your vehicle on a regular basis. This not only includes servicing but also keeping your car clean. Clean lights also mean safe driving. For cleaning tips check here. You should replace damaged or dimmed light housings and reflectors and burnt-out bulbs as soon as possible. You not only risk getting a fine but can also cause a potentially dangerous situation. Driving at night with no headlights is especially dangerous.
Look for replacement bulbs that match your lights and vehicle. If you’re not sure which bulbs or LEDs to get, consult your car manual. It will list the bulb type, the socket diameter, and the wattage. Buying bulbs with a higher wattage than your original bulb won’t necessarily mean more light, but it will definitely drain more power from the battery.
You can also search for car bulbs online. Retailers sell both genuine brands and aftermarket bulbs that fit your needs, whether you need halogens, xenons or LEDs. Consult state regulations if you want to replace your halogen bulbs with xenon lights, as different states have different laws regarding conversion kits. Also, consider the placement of additional fog or tail lights as specific laws apply.