Shedding light on a century of headlamp development

Difference between 1908 Ford Model T and 2016 Mustang like night and day

Published: February 13, 2017, 4:30 PM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 3:19 PM

Ford headlight comparison between Model T and Mustang

The automobile has come a long way in our lifetime, while retaining its basic set up of an internal combustion engine sending its power to four wheels via a transmission, so people can sit on the carriage and travel long distances using little energy themselves.

Many of an automobile’s myriad components have also weathered the test of time, but not without continuous evolution. A prime example is the headlight, which has grown from a lit lamp to basically alert others that a motorized vehicle was approaching, to beacons that illuminate hundreds of feet in front of the vehicle and even around bends, when needed, and there is so much still to come that goes beyond seeing the road ahead.

“We have gone from what were essentially glorified candles to efficient and effective xenon and LED lights,” said Michael Koherr, Ford’s lighting research engineer. “In the future, we’ll see more super-bright LED lights equipped to cars, which can actually help drivers remain alert. Visibility at night is now so much better. Like night and day.

“We are now developing new spot lighting technology that helps draw the driver’s attention to pedestrians, cyclists and even large animals in the vehicle’s path. This would use an infra-red camera to locate and track people and bigger animals up to 120 metres away.”

To illustrate the point, Ford took several of its most popular models from its first century of automaking and set up a cyclist, just 12 metres away — just over two mid-sized car lengths — on a streetlamp-lit road.

It started with a 1908 Model T that, after physically lighting the lamp, the light emitted wouldn’t even reach the bicycle. Mind you, the speed those early automobiles could attain allowed lots of time for pedestrians to avoid the vehicle in the space of two to three car lengths.

Today’s Xenon headlamps emit about three times the light of the halogen lamps used just 22 years ago, as illustrated by Ford using the latest Mustang and the 1994 Mondeo (Contour in North America). They shed light not only fully on the cyclist but also far beyond it, and even the Mondeo threw light beyond the 12-metre distance.

That’s quite a difference in the space of a couple decades, especially when you consider that the 1932 Model Y made little improvement in forward lighting over the 1908 model T, though it did add side markers and taillights, since the lamps were now electric.

“In terms of lighting technology, we have come out of the dark ages,” explains Koherr. “It is quite incredible what a fundamental difference these changes contribute in terms of road safety and driver comfort.”

And new headlamps, such as those offered on the new Edge, are using LED lights that shed up to five times more light than the Modeo’s halogen bulbs. That’s nearly twice that off the Mustang’s Xenon lamps, which is about the same as the Mondeo improved over the sealed lamp headlights of the Ford Fiesta, about 20 years earlier.

The other advancement over the years, and especially over the past couple decades has been that the light dispersed softens at the beam’s edges, so objects can be spotted as they come into the beam rather than just seeming to appear.