Laserlight: innovation from the light lab

5 min reading time
Xenon headlights, LED headlights, and now laserlights: the evolution in light technology is staggering. And at the forefront are BMW and Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi. The light engineer shows us what the new laserlight headlights can do.

14 May 2020

Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi can usually be found in the dark. In a long, narrow room, almost tucked away in the basement of the Research and Innovation Center in Munich is where the BMW Group’s light lab can be found. Here, engineers work on the BMW Group’s Dynamic Laser-Light Program. Hanafi is in his element among the cables, light diodes and countless other technical tools. “Light is the means that enables us to research the infinite largeness and smallness of the universe,” he explains.

Passionate about light

Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi is an engineer in the Dynamic Laser-Light Program at the BMW Group.

Dr. Hanafi’s fascination with light is clear when he speaks about his work. “Photons travel at the speed of light, which is around 186,000 miles per second, and the fastest that it’s possible to travel. At this speed and with the properties of light, we could explore the infinite largeness and smallness of the universe.” These are dimensions that those of us who are not intimately versed in quantum mechanics find difficult to understand – although for Dr. Hanafi this is the stuff of everyday life. “Light is a part of our lives,” he says, “without it, we wouldn’t be able to see anything.”

It’s thanks to his job at BMW that Dr. Hanafi developed his passion for light. He discovered early on while studying physics in France what he wanted to do with his life: the research and development of laser technology. Without false modesty, he says, “I was especially good in the areas of photonics, quantum mechanics and electromagnetic waves.” Before coming to BMW about ten years ago, he developed a laser for telecommunication in North America, among other things.

With a small but steadily growing team, he and Dr. Helmut Erdl (Senior Optical System Developer) spent their time developing a white light source with intense brightness that is based on lasers. The aim of their work was to find a good level of visibility that makes driving at night safer. They’ve accomplished their mission and also revolutionized headlights: using laserlight headlights to enhance high beams provides a much greater range than traditional LEDs – covering up to 660 yards.

Together they developed the BMW laserlight: Helmut Erdl (left) and Abdelmalek Hanafi.

Laserlight a boon for designers

In the fall of 2014, the BMW i8 was the first production vehicle to be equipped with the innovative new lights. Since then, this car technology has been installed in many of the vehicles in the BMW Model Program, including the BMW X7. Dr. Hanafi is justifiably proud of the laser headlights, one of the special features of the luxury SAV from BMW. In addition to improving visibility, it makes both designers and technicians happy. “Laser headlights take up considerably less space than regular headlights. The problem with both xenon headlights and halogen lights is that they are just too bulky,” notes Hanafi.

Light as a work of art: laser headlights enhance the look of the BMW X7.
Laserlight headlights use 30 percent less energy than LED lights while providing the same photometric performance for the same size headlight.
Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi

Manager Dynamic Laser-Light Program BMW Group

Tinkering around in a dark room. Dr. Hanafi works on the latest light technologies at the BMW Research and Innovation Center in Munich.

Dr. Hanafi explains in layman’s terms how laserlight works. “When semiconductor laser diodes in the blue area, i.e. those with the greatest energy, meet a yellow phosphorous reflector, they turn into white light.” Laser light creates a large amount of energy in a very small space, so laser headlights require around 30 percent less energy than LED headlights while providing the same photometric performance. This makes them very effective, which translates into greater visibility for drivers. They are also easy to use because the automatic light sensor switches to low beams whenever it detects the car lights of an oncoming car. This is better for everyone because oncoming drivers aren’t blinded by the high beams.

Their compact design makes laser headlights the perfect addition to LED headlights. This is a win-win for both car designers and engineers who work closely together. Designers develop the shape of the entire car based on aesthetic principles, and this includes incorporating the BMW headlights into the overall design. “As engineers, we respect the wishes of designers and try our best to make them a reality,” says Hanafi.

Hanafi demonstrates during a test drive in the BMW X7 how this works in the real world. He takes the luxury SAV out on the backroads outside of Munich. The LED headlights shine far into the darkness, since there is no oncoming traffic. He then eases the BMW X7 up to 50 mph and suddenly night becomes day. The BMW laser lights illuminate the entire road for almost half a mile, making driving at night a whole new experience. And the smile on Dr. Hanafi’s face shines with the same intensity as he is justifiably proud of this revolutionary invention.

The next challenges await

Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi is one of the fathers of the laser headlights.

This success is the inspiration behind further innovations and developments in BMW headlights. Dr. Hanafi has big plans for the laserlight program. The laser headlight was just the “proof of concept” – the proof that laserlight combined with LED lights could work well together. “There are many things that we still want to achieve. We are eager to further improve both safety and the driving experience,” says Hanafi of the department’s goals. However, it will not be easy, especially in the field of autonomous driving (➜ Read also: The development of self-driving cars) owing to the large number of assistance systems (➜ Read also: The main driver assistance systems). “Self-driving cars are practically robots. They are dependent on communication with their environment – which opens the door to many applications, but also brings a number of challenges,” continues Hanafi.

We are just getting started in the development of laser technology.
Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi

Manager Dynamic Laser-Light Program BMW Group

Advanced technology in light systems makes a whole host of other things possible, such as applications that you can use to send and receive information, e.g. lettering or small symbols, which are especially popular in China. But Hanafi and his team are still working on this. “We are just getting started,” he says. And this is exactly what makes him so happy. The laser headlight he has developed will be the stepping stone to concepts that would never before have been feasible. For BMW this means the company will see many exciting new innovations in the next few years. And for Dr. Abdelmalek Hanafi, it will mean many more years exploring his great passion – the world of light.

The BMW X7 is one of the many models in the BMW Model Program that features the laserlights.

Photos: Regina Recht; Author: Esther Acason, Nils Arnold