The Next Cool Things in lasers--in cars

By Tom Hausken
Just when you think you’ve thought of everything, there appears a new application for lasers in cars, this one from BMW: laser headlights . An application like this could mean millions of high-power diode lasers per year, which is a lot for that technology, and would amounts to the “Next Big Thing” if it catches on.

BMW says that the diode lasers would be more efficient than LED headlights, offering greater overall brightness. LED headlights are just now penetrating models made by Audi, Cadillac, Mitsubishi, and Toyota. The laser output has to be converted through use of a phosphor, of course, as it is with LED headlights. Laser sources could also allow for more refined projection onto the road.

Ten years to one million cars? BMW plans to introduce the laser headlights in a small number of vehicles in 2014. That’s 3 years away. My model for the introduction of features in cars suggests that 7 years after that the feature might reach 1 million cars, if it’s popular or required in some way. (That's because they first appear in luxury models, as options, and spread, which takes time.) In 10 years that might amount to sales of 2 million headlights (both sides) of, say, 10W each. Take your pick what the price should be. Be forewarned that carmakers are big, steady customers when you can get them, with long product cycles, but they are notoriously hard on their suppliers.

Laser spark plugs. For years there has been talk of laser spark plugs, another intriguing application. Using lasers to ignite internal combustion can enable a more uniform, greener, more stable combustion. With all the talk about hybrid cars and electric cars, going to a newfangled technology like laser spark plugs sounds expensive and, well, still half-baked. But imagine the market: millions of cars with lasers that never used them before. And after all, the conventional spark plug was patented by Robert Bosch and Nikola Tesla. Isn’t it time to improve on it?

The most recent buzz on this was in 2009, when Ford announced a collaboration with GSI and the University of Liverpool called LASIIC (Laser Ignition for IC Engines). More recently, work at Toyota and elsewhere was presented at CLEO 2011. 

It's cool stuff, but considering that it's years from introduction as a product, if ever, and adding 10 years to that, we have a good 15-20 years before laser spak plugs could be a million-unit phenomenon.
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