An Inner Light

Oct 1, 2012

LEDs transform the look, color and ambience of vehicle interiors.

More than 20 years ago about the only available option for vehicle accent lighting was to use big, bulky neon tubes. Sure, neons created a cool glow, had a nifty on/off power switch and attracted attention – they also had a propensity to drain batteries, cause various types of wiring shorts and other problems within a vehicle’s electrical system due to the monstrous amount of power needed for them to work.

Through the years, aftermarket enthusiasts have veered away from the antiquated neon and “have seen the light” while finding a more beneficial way to accent their ride.

These days, most accent lighting outside and within one’s vehicle is, more-often-than-not, powered by light emitting diodes (LEDs).

“When LEDs were first invented 50 years ago the only color they came in was red. They were so dim, they were close to useless,” says Brian Limback, marketing director at SuperBright LEDs, Earth City, Mo. Now, “LEDs are extremely bright and are manufactured in a large variety of vibrant colors. We predict that over the next few years they will continue to become even brighter due to increasing technology. One example of this is, ‘Chip On Board,’ or COB, LEDs, which will result in increased adoption by consumers and manufacturers.” COB LEDs are also said to be brighter and more energy efficient.

Why LEDs?

“There are a wide variety of LED bulbs available to retrofit existing automotive fixtures,” Limback informs. “Whether it is inside your vehicle or outside, you will start to see an increase in the power of LED automotive bulbs, and the newer versions, which will work without the use of a resistor for easier installation.”

Bogdan Durian, president of Delta Tech Industries, Ontario, Calif., notes, “LEDs are also the most popular (types of lights to use) for (a vehicle’s) interior and are the most user-friendly because they provide illumination with low (energy) consumption,”

For example, “electric-white LEDs have a 6,000-Kelvin color rating,” which is considered to have a cooler color temperature as opposed to other types of lighting emitted from other sources,” Durian says, noting that the lifespan of LEDs, “is a lot longer and they do not have an internal filament -” but instead use light emitting diodes which glow very brightly.”

Current trends

About a decade ago LEDs slowly started to gain more popularity and were widely used as exterior home lighting to accent areas such as sidewalks and flower beds. Today, there is an even, “broader spectrum of uses for LEDs in homes, cars, boats, motorcycles, recreational vehicles and even semi-tractor trailers,” says Jason Schell, marketing manager of West Berlin, N.J.-based LEDGlow Lighting. Although there is not a specific vehicle trend that seems to be the most popular with those who opt to install LEDs, Schell alludes to the fact that accent lighting for truck beds has been gaining in popularity.

“We offer truck bed lighting, which consists of two strands of four pods each [and] which is a total of 48 LEDs,” Schell says. Many consumers mount the strands under the lip of truck sides, around bedliners, and even with tonneau covers. “We give you tons of wiring where you can stretch it out. Our pods are a quarter of an inch thick and are really small so you can hide them and still get great illumination,” he adds.

As a side note, motorcycle kits are also becoming popular with the accent lighting crowd.

“When you get into customizing with LEDs, the popularity of cycle kits is off the charts,” Schell says. “The lighting not only looks great on a bike but it is an unbelievable safety feature, especially when riding at night. The bikers like how the LEDs make the entire bike visible to other drivers.” Bikers also like the glow the LEDs emit, “because it is a soft, ambient light and not a blinding bright light,” Schell adds.

Currently, notes Justin Hartenstein of Oracle Lighting, Metairie, La., “Solid-state [LED] lighting has replaced most forms of interior lighting, and for good reason. A few years ago it was mostly the import market that saw a surge in lighting sales. Today, with lighting becoming more about function and practical application, you see sales growth in the truck market, powersports and modern muscle vehicles.”

Whether one uses LEDs on the inside or outside of the vehicle, the uses for them are growing at a very fast pace. These days LEDs are being used in, “dome lights, courtesy, cosmetic, under the hood and in luggage compartments,” Delta Tech’s Durian says. They are also very popular as taillights and even for directional signals.

“LEDs not only offer different colors, they make it look pretty [cool] when you open a vehicle’s door at night,” Durian adds. “The wise thing to do is to convert your lighting to LED because it is really not that expensive and anyone can use it to modify their vehicle, especially since most units are universal,” Durian says.

For those who are unsure about switching from standard bulbs to LEDs, have no fear, because most companies offer conversion bulbs. These bulbs are, “easy to apply and install using self-adhesives (most popular), or snapping them into a frame. Plus, the wiring is so simple that one doesn’t have to be an electrician to install it,” Durian encourages.

Future LED products and trends

“The ambient lighting market is changing and we are seeing a cleaner looking car with an underbody as opposed to the styles of eight to 10 years ago when cars had big wings or where enthusiasts tried to create ‘super cars,'” Schell says. “For the past two years LED Glow has been working on a new product called their Million Color Underbody kit, which features Bluetooth® connectivity, which wirelessly controls the system and is available for Droid and Apple. With the new system one can also create any color and pattern they want,” Schell says.

Oracle’s Hartenstein provides this: “The next big advancement I foresee with interior lighting is the use of ‘organic LEDs’ (O-LEDs),” he says. “These LED panels can be integrated into a vehicle’s interior and appear transparent until the panel is illuminated (and then it appears upon illumination). Obviously O-LED is a great example of some very exciting new technology that will have an almost endless number of uses and should start appearing in vehicle applications within two to four years.”

Going back to more of the exterior safety/ambience use of LEDs, for the immediate future, Northerners are starting to get ready for the winter by outfitting, “their snowmobiles, motorcycles, big trucks and ATVs,” Schell notes. “Our cycle and ATV kits are perfect for snowmobiles. They look awesome and add a ton of visibility because the white LEDs illuminate everything.” The more offroad vehicles used during the winter leads to the need for, “offroad LED lights and LED tailgate light bars with a white reverse light option – everything is plug-and-play,” Schell says.

Regardless if one, drives a semi-truck, “a $70,000 BMW or an older, $7,000 pickup, vehicle owners can appreciate the benefits from retro-fitting their automotive lighting to LED,” Limback says. Also, with LEDs one does not have to worry about leaving, say, a dome light on overnight because, “Your car will still start the next day due to the low power draw of LED technology,” Limback adds.

Marketing ideas

To market your products, especially such unique ones, Durian suggests using your personal vehicle to display your wares while driving. His personal car, a Camaro, is outfitted with many of his organization’s products. One of the products on his car is a sequentially lit (that is, moving) LED arrow on the vehicle’s side-view mirrors which activate when the turn signal is in use. “There are four lights which move inside the mirror, and people stop me all the time asking where I got the work done,” Durian says. The Camaro also features overlay lighting, which is installed over the grille and automatically illuminates when the car is started.

“This product is called Delta Wing, and we even received a [product recognition] plaque from the president of General Motors,” Durian adds. Having the organization’s own patented products installed on a vehicle is a great way to not only promote but gain recognition.

A few other marketing tips are to use “POP displays as well as floor stands to display your product(s),” Hartenstein advises. “The dealers who have the most success usually have lit or interactive displays where the customer can see the brilliance of the LED light compared to factory lighting.”

Schell suggests providing, step-by-step videos, “and installing a kit on a bike to use as your own in-store display.” He also suggests that the company offer outstanding service, warranties and tech support in order to retain business. His philosophy is that, “We don’t cultivate customers, we build relationships,”
he says.

Technical / Installation of LEDs

“One great feature of LEDs is that they wire directly to 12V power and can be installed by anyone who has a basic understanding of DC power,” Oracle’s Hartenstein says. “The most common mistake that happens is caused by LEDs’ polarity. Installers often call us to troubleshoot an installation and say, ‘I hooked up the LEDs where the factory bulb was and they did not come on.’ So the installer then puts the factory bulb back in and it works.

“We suggest they try connecting the LED wires the other way. An installer may assume that a wire marked a certain color is positive (+) or negative (-) so they connect the LEDs the same way [thinking it is correct], but in actuality the wiring is reversed. [Luckily], the LEDs will not be damaged if wired in reverse polarity, but they will not light up until they are wired correctly.”

Says LEDGlow Lighting’s Schell: “Keeping the wires secured to the vehicle and 4″ to 6″ away from heat sources and moving parts is also important. You also don’t want the tube or strip visible (otherwise, it looks tacky) so, the more hidden the strip is, the more ambient the effect will be. We use a wide-angled LED so it gives a nice, even glow. Each kit comes programmed with its own control box and remote so there will never be an issue with frequency interference from other sources.”

Durian of Delta Tech notes, “Installing LEDs is rather easy and the degree of difficulty is almost zero as long as you follow the instructions and the wiring color codes: red (hot) and black (grounded).”

Adds Oracle’s Hartenstein: “It is better for the LED if you switch it using the ground (anode) input. This will help the LEDs reach maximum life expectancy.”