A Thousand Points of (Head and Tail) Light
How regulations dictate style in automotive design
“I’ve been into tail lights since I was six years old,” says Phil Patton, who writes about cars for The New York Times. “When I’m out driving, I’m always looking at them. I mean, when you’re stuck in traffic and you’re facing a sea of tail lights, you don’t have anything else to do but look at those things.”
From Patton’s perspective — the perspective of a lifelong car obsessive — this is a grim time for tail light and headlight design. “You used to be able to identify brands from a distance at night just based on their lights,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, that’s a Ford,’ or ‘That’s a Chevrolet.’ But now there’s so much variety within each brand that there’s no longer any visual signature.” Earlier this year he wrote a lament for the current generation of tail lights, which he called “generic, nearly interchangeable” and “flaccid and formless.” Other car writers I’ve recently spoken with have expressed similar views.
But I don’t see it that way. Now, granted, I’m no car obsessive. I own a car, but it’s strictly practical, not aspirational (a 2002 Mitsubishi Galant), plus I work at home and live in a large city with excellent mass transit, so I’ll often go a week or more without driving. This means most of my exposure to headlights and tail lights doesn’t come when I’m out driving or stuck in traffic. It comes when I’m walking around my neighborhood and see all the cars parked on the street. And what I see out there doesn’t look generic or formless at all.
On the contrary, I see amazing variety in style and execution — a huge range of solutions to the same basic problem. For example, some tail lights are vertically oriented and others are horizontal. Some of the horizontal ones butt up against the edge of the trunk, others extend a few inches into the trunk, and a few extend all the across the trunk and connect with the tail light on the other side. Some are round, some are square, and some are abstract squiggles. Some are positioned fairly low on the car, others fairly high. The ratios of red to white to amber differ significantly, too. I don’t like all of the designs, but I’m blown away by the sheer multiplicity. Here’s a small sampling, all found within a one-block radius of my apartment:
One reason for all this variety is that the federal guidelines governing car lights, which are administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are exacting when it comes to things like the lights’ brightness and durability but are more forgiving when it comes to the lights’ shape and size, which gives designers plenty of room to play around.
“The U.S. rules actually allow a lot more leeway compared to other countries,” says Ed Kim, Vice President of Industry Analysis for AutoPacific, a market research and consulting firm. “For example, we allow red turn signals at the back of the car, as well as amber. Most other countries specify that it has to blink amber.”
But when it comes to examining variety in car lighting, tail lights are the low-hanging fruit. If you want a more nuanced example, check out the front side marker light. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry — neither did I when I started this article. But I had noticed that almost every car’s headlight assembly includes an amber reflector lens that’s visible from the side of the car. Simple enough — or so it seems, until you start to see all the different configurations: big, small, thick, thin, vertical, horizontal, rectangular, triangular, one-piece, multi-piece, and so on. Here’s a sampling from my neighborhood:
And it gets better. Sometimes the side marker light isn’t part of the headlight assembly and is instead mounted on the front bumper or the leading edge of the front wheel well:
The front side marker has to be at least 36 square centimeters, but designers have come up with a seemingly endless variety of ways to meet that requirement. This element is so inconspicuous, yet is executed in so many different ways, that I’ve become fixated on it. Whether I’m driving, walking or biking, I find myself looking at other people’s cars zeroing in on that little amber lens. What is it even for?
“There was some study done back in the ’60s that suggested that adding reflectors to the corners of the car drastically improved the car’s visibility at night and could have a measurable impact on improving safety, at minimal cost, so that’s the origin of that requirement,” says Kim. “But you’ll only find it in the U.S. and Canada. Cars in Europe and elsewhere aren’t required to have it.”
Of course, car lights look more dramatic when they’re illuminated and in motion. Do automotive designers even care what the lights look like when the car is turned off and just sitting there?
“Oh, absolutely,” says Kevin George, Design Manager at Ford. “When most people see a car for the first time, the lights usually aren’t on. So we care very much what they think of the lighting design in that context.”
Interesting. And are there designers who specialize in car lights, or do the lights just get folded into the larger exterior design of the car?
“It can be a specialty,” says George. “In fact, for the new Ford Edge, we had one designer dedicated to the head lamp and another dedicated to the tail lamp.”
George is an extremely gracious man who patiently answered all my questions about car lights. But like most people in the automotive industry, he tends to think about the lights in terms of branding. He uses terms like “signature lighting” and “downroad graphic,” talks about how the lights serve as the “eyes” or “jewelry” of the car, and says the Edge “has this technological spirit running through every aspect of it, so the lights have to send that message of technological sophistication.”
This type of corporatespeak, I confess, tends to make my eyes glaze over. And since I’m not a car guy, I don’t care so much about car branding. Sure, I sometimes see imagery being communicated by car lights, but it’s nothing as grandiose as “technological spirit.” When I see the tail lights on a Honda Civic, for example, I see two falcons’ heads in profile, and the Toyota Camry has what I’ve come to think of as the Pac-Man tail lights. Then there’s the Nissan Altima, whose tail light has this weird bent amber lens that for some reason reminds me of hard candy, like a Jolly Rancher. When I see it, I want to lick it. Too bad you can’t build a branding campaign around that.
Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with the front side marker light. It’s such a small, minor element that it seems immune to branding. Do designers even put much thought into it, or is it just an afterthought that gets dealt with at the last minute?
“Oh, we definitely think about it,” says George. “For one thing, the car has to have it, so we start thinking about it along with all the other ‘have to have’ components. You might get away with omitting it on a very early sketch. But if you’re showing renderings to management, they’ll notice if you leave it out. So we include those elements early on. We might move them around until the visual theme gets solidified, but we’re always thinking about them.”
And why do some cars have the side marker on the bumper or the lip of the wheel well, instead of including it in the headlight assembly? “It’s a battle over every last millimeter as we try to work out how all these separate components are going to share the same space,” says George. “So if the headlight package starts to get too big, we may start to pull some function out of it — function that we can put somewhere else. And one way to do that is to pull out the side marker.”
And what does my preoccupation with this little element say about me? “Well, you’re definitely digging pretty deep here,” says George. “I mean, you’re not just skating on the lake — you’re going ice fishing! But that just reinforces something that one of my first design mentors told me: ‘Never leave out any detail, because someone might focus in on that.’” Indeed.