LED headlamp test: Not just brighter, but wider and more natural illumination

Updated Nov 15, 2013
Even on low beam, the lamps can light up a distant reflective sign and still provide good peripheral illumination.Even on low beam, the lamps can light up a distant reflective sign and still provide good peripheral illumination.

U.S. Highway 43 North out of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a twisting, hilly bitch of a road with a sole redeeming quality: It’s almost always devoid of traffic. And like most Southern backroads, it’s also pitch black at night. In short, it’s the perfect road for a late-night run in a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia to test out Truck Lite’s new LED headlamps.

Truck Lite is owned by Penske. So it was no surprise when I requested a demo truck to evaluate these new LED headlamps that my brand-new Cascadia was painted in that familiar Penske yellow. It also was no surprise that the truck was a Freightliner: Daimler Trucks North America announced in July that Truck Lite Custom LED headlamps would be standard on all Cascadia and Cascadia Evolution models.

LED headlamps offer distinct advantages over conventional (halogen) designs, said Brad Van Riper, senior vice president and chief technical officer for Truck Lite:

ENHANCED VISIBILITY. Thanks to finely tuned light-emitting chips with enhanced blue and white colors in the light spectrum, the lamps do an excellent job of lighting up the roadway.

LONGER LIFE. Although Custom LED headlamps cost more than conventional lights, the return on investment is much greater due to longer lifespan, Van Riper notes. “We conducted extensive shock and vibration testing on this lamp design, and we have rated the lights at more than 30,000 hours of life – with no failures to vibration during those tests.”

LOW CURRENT DRAW. LEDs draw about 50 percent less energy than halogen headlights, Van Riper says. “That’s more amperage available to recharge batteries or run auxiliary systems on the vehicle.”

LONGER EFFECTIVENESS. The luminosity level of conventional headlamps fades with use, usually so slowly that drivers never notice until new lamps are installed. But LED lights remain almost as bright at the end of their service lives as they were at the beginning.

My first impression was the color of the light emitted by the LED lamps. It’s a natural white light, lacking the yellowish hues you see with conventional lamps. I was reminded of fluorescent lighting and found it easy on the eyes.

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Another trait was the wide coverage area. While a lot of headlights focus narrow beams of light that reveal little peripheral detail, the Custom LED lamps give much wider illumination. For example, I could clearly see deer off to the side as opposed to seeing, at best, yellow eyes floating in the dark.

Also striking is the greater range the Custom LEDs offer on the low-beam setting. Forward visibility is so enhanced that you easily can see reflective signs up to a half a mile away.

In fact, with the visibility difference between low and high beams not that dramatic, I wondered if oncoming traffic would find my low beams too intense and flash me as a result. But during this test, only once did an oncoming car hit its high beams, leading me to conclude that the low-beam intensity is not a big problem for other motorists.

I noticed that my eyes didn’t feel as strained as they normally would during a night drive on such a dark road. This is perhaps due to the enhanced blue and white light given off by the LED lamps being a much more natural color than what’s emitted by conventional lamps, so it’s more like daytime light. Additionally, your eyes don’t have to work as hard to pick out details on the road.

As I reported these impressions to Van Riper, it turned out there is even more subtlety at work. He said Truck Lite conducted extensive research with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to develop a light wavelength that’s more conducive to producing daytime levels of melatonin in the body, thereby reducing fatigue. The result, Van Riper says, is more alert drivers while on duty and less fatigued drivers at the end of a shift.

Freightliner’s move to standardize Custom LED lamps on the Cascadia is a sure indicator this technology has arrived. While Truck Lite is progressing with its product’s market penetration, Grote Industries also has been developing LED headlamp options for an equipment partner and anticipates a much broader market, says Product Manager Chris Cammack.

My impressions of the new lamps were positive: Crisp, white light that is easy on the eyes and provides longer and wider fields of view. That’s a hard combination to beat. 

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