For the past couple of decades, Audi has been one of the biggest pioneers of automotive lighting technology, starting design trends and introducing features that have spread across the industry. The original R8 debuted in 2006 with dotted LED daytime running lights that looked spectacular, and the B8 A4 and first-gen A5 brought the look to the mainstream in 2007. The 2009 R8 V10 was the first car in the world with full-LED headlamps, the 2013 A8 facelift was the first car to feature advanced matrix LED headlights, and the second-gen R8 introduced laser headlights in 2017, all of which were landmarks in lighting achievement.
Now, the Q4 E-Tron takes Audi’s lighting game to an even higher level with configurable DRLs where drivers can choose between four different light signature designs in the headlights. It’s the first time this feature has been offered in a car, and while it might seem like a minor gimmick to some, after testing the car for a week I adore it. Lighting technology is one of the most exciting aspects of modern car design to me, so to learn more about it I hopped on a Zoom call with Anthony Garbis, senior manager of product planning at Audi of America.
The Q4’s DRLs are selectable through a menu in the infotainment screen, and after choosing which one you want the ignition has to be cycled. There’s no name for each design, just numbers, but the screen displays what the DRL looks like. The default style features four short segments of light above the central light bar that’s always on, but my favorite of the bunch has a checkered flag motif. One design illuminates every lower section of the lamp, and the last has two central lights above and below that create an eye-like look. While every Q4 E-Tron comes standard with LED headlights, you have to jump to the top-end Prestige level to gain the matrix LED lights that have the configurable DRLs.
[Editor’s Note: It’s hard to read this without wondering why Audi stopped short of letting drivers set their own LED matrix patterns by choosing which individual LEDs are on. Once you can pick patterns, you’d think it would be trivial to offer some simple interface to let owners define their own LED matrix light signatures. Sure, the current matrices are pretty low-resolution, but that’s likely to improve with time, and something like this should be quite do-able:
Maybe Audi thinks people will just draw pixelated dicks all the time and they don’t want to deal with that. I guess I can’t blame them. – JT]
Cars used to just have low beams and high beams, and that was it. “We went from halogens to xenons to LEDs in under 20 years, it was a massive transformation,” Garbis said.
Xenons brought a huge improvement in terms of visibility while LEDs introduced better, more neutral color temperatures and much greater efficiency. Every new lighting advancement has increased visibility and reduced energy consumption—LEDs are much more efficient than halogens and produce less heat—with the latest matrix lights introducing additional safety features too. But as lighting tech has improved in terms of functionality, the styling impact has become even larger as well.
“Lighting used to be just so you could see and be seen, now it’s really part of the design statement and personalization of the vehicle for customers,” Garbis said. Personalization is one of the key points that luxury buyers look for, as evidenced by the success of Audi’s Exclusive program that lets customers choose custom exterior paints, leather colors and other unique features for their cars. “It’s in demand for our customers because they wanna make sure they don’t pull up at a light next to someone in the exact same car as them,” he says, “we have the technology to be able to do it, so we put it out to our customers. It keeps your car fresh.”
More than ever before lighting is used to create a corporate identity throughout a brand’s lineup, so even at night you can tell it’s an Audi up ahead. “There’s so much brand image in marketing associated with lighting, it’s instant recognition for Audi, and that to me is super cool,” Garbis said, “That’s the sign of good design, that you can instantly identify the brand.” He mentions BMW’s ‘angel eye’ headlight rings as a great example of this. The design of each Audi model’s light signatures is tied into the overall themes for the car, so RS models will have more aggressive lights while E-Tron models get a more tech-forward approach.
It’s not just headlights that play a factor in light design these days. “Mercedes-Benz kind of turned the world on its head when they started illuminating the star,” Garbis said, “Once that happened, now you see everyone’s illuminating the front of their cars.”
[Editor’s Note: Easy there, Garbis. Illuminated badges have been a thing long before Mercedes-Benz did it. – JT]
The Cadillac Escalade IQ is one amazing example, where the entire ‘grille’ panel is lit up with thin geometric lines of light. Audi is no different, offering illumination as an accessory option for its four-ring logo in some models, and the updated Q8 E-Tron (previously just the E-Tron) has a light bar running across the front end.
The Mercedes star and its offspring are an interesting case of working around an outdated law. An U.S. safety rule from the 1970s says you cannot have more than four lights on at a time at the front of a vehicle, so the light-up star isn’t actually a light projecting outwards—it’s being projected inwards, essentially illuminating backwards.
[Editor’s Note: I’m not entirely sure about this assertion; some states do have this rule, though how it applies to a dual-headlamp car running high beams and with parking lights illuminated isn’t clear to me. Plus, cars like the Mercury Sable had full-width front light bars that had multiple bulbs inside them; perhaps it was considered one light? But even so, with headlights and parking lights on, that’d be five lights. I think the takeaway here is that American automotive lighting regulations can be a bit Byzantine. –JT]
That ties into the biggest issue with modern headlights in the US: outdated regulations. “It’s at the point that we need to catch up with the times,” Garbis said., “We’re working very hard to lobby and adapt these archaic regulations, because it’s a benefit for everyone.” In Europe, where headlight regulations are much more progressive, matrix headlights have dynamic high beams that bend around other cars and pedestrians while still illuminating the empty road around them, but that functionality isn’t allowed in America. The latest digital matrix lights are capable of even more wild things, like projecting a crosswalk in front of the car for pedestrians. “No one could have ever possibly thought about this 60 years ago when the lighting regulations were done,” he adds, “that’s why it needs to be updated to allow these functionalities for our roads.”
Audi’s matrix lights use the same front camera and sensors as the car’s other safety systems to detect obstacles ahead, and every car equipped with the matrix lights has the same inherent functionality no matter what country it’s sold in. Welcome projections are currently allowed, at least, where the headlights do a dance upon unlocking the car and project animations, logos and other designs on the road or wall in front of the car. “For now I settle for just the glam of it rather than the functionality while you’re driving,” Garbis says in reference to his personal Q8 E-Tron.
When the laws do get updated, though, every Audi equipped with matrix headlights will have the advanced functions activated through a software update. NHTSA recently approved a law allowing adaptive headlights, but it doesn’t mesh with the SAE standard that Audi and other automakers use, further complicating matters and making it harder for the tech to be activated. But Garbis says the existence of the hardware is a selling point to customers even if they can’t take full advantage of the tech yet. “Customers now are very interested in the tech that goes into the car,” he says, “and we’re very good at it, because we were also the first to do it.”
Audi’s next major lighting innovations are coming in the Q6 E-Tron, which was recently previewed in camouflaged prototype form. The Q6 has second-gen digital OLED taillights that have a massive increase in resolution and 10 times the number of segments per panel compared to the first-gen units found in cars like the TT RS and Q5. The matrix LED headlights are also more complex and have a new multipixel array with 61 segments that allow for even more configurability, with owners able to choose between light signature designs either in the car’s infotainment system or through a phone app. Response times have also improved, with the lights able to make changes in design and brightness much quicker than before.
The Q6 marks the debut of Audi’s active digital light signature, which animates both the head- and taillights even when the car is in motion by brightening and dimming individual sections every ten milliseconds. Garbis describes the shimmering effect like looking at embers in a fireplace. “It’s like it’s alive, I can’t even explain it,” he says, “when I saw it for the first time, I said ‘that’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in my entire life.’”
[Editor’s Note: It’s always nice to learn about new taillight fetishists. – JT]
Beyond just looking awesome, the Q6’s lights offer new car-to-X functionality never before seen on a production car. If the Q6 detects a traffic jam or hazard ahead, it will display a warning triangle in the taillights (see video above). When a car following behind the Q6 gets too close too quickly, the taillights will instantly get brighter and flash to hopefully prevent an accident. Activate the automatic parking system and the taillights will show an arrow to let other drivers know you’re backing into a space. The shimmering animation and car-to-X features likely won’t be activated in the US at launch, but they too can be activated via OTA update if laws change.
Garbis embraces competition when it comes to lighting, too. I mention how Hyundai Motor Group is producing incredible lighting designs across its three brands, and Garbis specifically calls out the Genesis GV80 and its awesome wraparound dual lamps that extend onto the fenders. “They’re crushing their design now and doing cool stuff with lighting, and I’m all for it,” he says, “competition just makes everything better for the customers in the end and it keeps people innovating.”
The speed at which lighting innovations are happening doesn’t show any signs of slowing. “It’s truly mind-boggling how far we’ve come in just a short time,” Garbis says, “I can’t wait to see what people start doing with OLEDs now that we show them what we have planned. Who knows what we’re gonna have another 30 years from now, it’ll be crazy.”
Personally, I can’t wait.