The Ford GT is the latest update of the iconic GT40, the race car that dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the late 1960s. Its carbon fiber bodywork looks the business, and 600-plus horsepower backs it up. But one cool detail you might have missed is the headlights, and what Ford claims they can do.
Headlights have become a thing for automakers. Audi started putting LEDs on just about everything a few years ago, and upscale brands like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac followed suit. Compared to old-school high-intensity discharge or halogen lamps, LEDs are brighter, smaller and easier to package (allowing for more striking and aerodynamic designs), run far cooler, and require less energy, all of which helps make the vehicle more efficient.
Car companies have been one-upping each other with increasingly sophisticated lighting systems, and here comes Ford with its “Crystal Diamond Light.” They aren’t just brighter and more efficient than the lights on your whip, Ford claims they’ll actually make you feel better. So far, there’s not a lot research to back up that assertion, but to Ford’s credit, there not a lot of evidence disproving it either. So, yes, LED tech is definitely better at lighting up the road, but as for definitively improving your mood … only time and a lot more official analysis will be able to make that call.
Ford’s tech, debuting on the GT and coming to the F-150 pickup before gradually making its way to other models, is the work of Arun Kuman. He’s a “visual ergonomist” in the automaker’s design department. He says the new LED system produces the same number of lumens as other lights, but use 38 percent less energy. And they definitely make it easier to see the road, and all the stuff you want to avoid hitting. “LEDs are much clearer for our vision in the night that our human eye is trained to,” he says. “So this is the maximum efficiency out of that.”
One big reason for this is Ford’s lights are cooler. Literally. Here’s a quick primer on color temperature, which is the temperature at which a black object would glow that color. Heat that black slab to around 3,000 degrees Kelvin and you get yellow and red. Subject it to around 5,000 degrees Kelvin, you get bluish white. Yes, it’s a bit confusing, because higher temperatures generate “cooler” colors.
Ford’s new LEDs clock in at a chilly 5,600 K, about the same as bright white sunlight at noon. (Halogen lights hang out at around 3,200 K.) Kumar says 5,600 K provides an optimal combination of visibility and glare reduction. “The eye perceives cooler, bluer lights better, therefore increasing visibility.” Ford hopes to make its lights even cooler (literally, if not figuratively) in the future.
But it’s not entirely clear that bluer means better. Lorne Whitehead is a physics professor at the University of British Columbia and sits on the board of the International Commission on Illumination, the body responsible for setting light-related technical standards. “There are a few things that are really worrisome about high color temperature,” he says. Yes, the LEDs on the GT40 “are probably a big advance” for visibility, but can irritate the eyes. That’s why your eyes start to hurt after staring at a screen for too long. “There are worries about blue lights hurting the retina,” he says.
Granted, you aren’t supposed to look straight into a pair of headlights, and the Ford’s goal was to create brighter lights that reach further down the road. “There’s no doubt that increasing brightness is going to help,” says Martin Banks, a professor of optometry and vision science at University of California, Berkeley. He too is skeptical that cooler light is an improvement over warmer light, but says generating brighter light is a move in the right direction. “The big effect is the luminance, he says. “If it actually has a higher luminance then there is a good argument that it’s going to increase acuity.”
So far, so good. But then there’s Ford’s claim that its Crystal Diamond Lights could make you feel better. The company claims that the grumpiness and perhaps even depression you feel after a long slog home can be due in part to lousy lighting, because things like gradients and homogeneity can affect your mood. The suggestion that Ford’s new lights can lift your spirits? The science on this is squishy.
A number of studies on indoor lighting suggest brighter light aids productivity and employee morale. It’s also been shown to improve mood, social interactions and “intellectual productivity.” A 2015 study by University of Cassino and Southern Latio is especially bullish on the idea, claiming that “light stimuli (i.e. sensory input) will be able to induce specific emotions, behaviors, and mood as well as influence bodily and mental health,” and that “generally, a higher intensity of light stimulation corresponds to a higher level of concentration/attention.” Of course, these studies focus on interior lighting, so it remains to be seen how big a difference cool blue lights make when you’re stuck in horrorshow traffic and your toddler’s pitching a fit in the backseat. But even if Ford’s new headlamps don’t fill you with joy, at least you’ll see the road better.