How Laser-powered Headlights Work

BMW's i8 hybrid sports car concept was revealed at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. See more pictures of concept cars.
Courtesy of BMW USA

By now you're no doubt aware that lasers are good for so much more than just blowing up Imperial Star Destroyers. Over the years they've developed a lot more down-to-earth, practical uses -- like reading CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs, correcting blurry vision and creating dancing dots on the floor for your cat to chase.

Now you can add to that list, "illuminating car headlamps." That's right; vehicle headlights are getting the laser treatment, courtesy of BMW. The high-end German automaker announced the innovation at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, showcasing the technology on its i8 hybrid sports car concept.

BMW says that lasers have an illuminating power 1,000 times more powerful than light-emitting diodes -- or LEDs -- which up until just recently provided the greatest wow factor of all the bulb technologies out there. Thus, BMW says, the laser lights can be much smaller than conventional lighting systems, they can use less energy to operate and well, they look pretty darn cool, too.

But wait a minute, haven't we always been told never to look directly into a laser because it could blind you with its intensity? Should we prepare to be spectacularly annoyed even further by nighttime drivers of fancy cars with overpowered headlights? And what you really want to know: Could the lasers cut through a person like a Star Wars lightsaber if there is an accident?

Truth be told, the technology behind BMW's laser headlamps is pretty ingenious -- and rather tame when it comes to their danger quotient. Read on to find out how these laser-powered headlights work and when they might be shedding light on a stretch of dark pavement near you.