Lighting on the outside of cars has always been delivered by dedicated fixtures that, more or less, function like islands: They interrupt the rest of the car’s design around them; Stylists mostly hate them for their physical and regulatory rigidity. Enter so-called Breakthrough Lighting from auto tech giant Magna. It embeds invisible light elements into almost any plastic body panel, which comprises a growing percentage of the modern car body. When needed, the embedded lighting becomes visible; When not, it disappears.
This may sound like a bit of auto show concept car frippery, but I suspect it’s an idea whose time has come for four major reasons.
This new form of lighting seems analogous to the way Sam Gilliam painted: Removing the rigid frame and radically expanding the canvas. Car designers and their employers love any option that gives them more power to differentiate from the other guy. A major caveat here is that federal lighting regulations have a lot to say about automotive exterior lights and may hold back some use of any radical new lighting technology. (How much do you want to bet that some carmakers will only unlock some features of Breakthrough Lighting if you’ve paid an unlock fee, or worse, an outrageous feature subscription fee)?
More kinds of exterior visual expression will be important for autonomous vehicles that need to let pedestrians and cars around them know what they’re thinking and are about to do. More down to earth will be a car that can better tell you if it’s locked or not, from a distance.
This kind of lighting won’t replace current federally required lighting any time soon, almost freeing it to be an expressive feature instead. We’ve been trained by carmakers and by the aftermarket to want to customize the lighting of our cars. Well, if you’re under 30.
Sure, car lights are already made of plastic, but thin in-panel lighting seems to barely add any weight to a body panel. This isn’t the biggest weight savings, but to hit increasingly stringent emissions, economy and range goals, automakers are interested in saving ounces, not just pounds.
Magna says Breakthrough Lighting technology will be ready for production in 2023. That doesn’t mean a carmaker will, or even could offer it that soon. But it does seem to move us measurably closer to a future when cars will look the way Syd Mead imagined they would by now.