Are LED Headlights Better Than Halogen Headlights?

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One thing’s for sure: LED headlights are better-looking than regular headlights. We’ll discuss the details below, but because of their tiny size, individual LEDs can be arranged in some pretty dramatic shapes, and they’re becoming an increasingly important part of a vehicle’s exterior design language. Indeed, LED taillights, daytime running lights and brake lights can already be found in some of the market’s most affordable cars. Moreover, if the premium brands are any evidence, LED headlights will soon be available throughout the mainstream segments, too.
Yet do they really offer anything more than a fancy style cue? The answer to that isn’t quite so clear.

The LED Headlight Basics

First, let’s look at how the different types of headlights operate. Halogen headlights are still the most common, and they work much like traditional incandescent lights have worked since the start: An electric charge is passed through a filament, which heats up and produces light as a result. The halogen here is a halogen gas that allows the filament to glow brighter than in the presence of normal air.

LED lights follow the same general principle, but with the electric current sent through a small semiconductor called a diode. It’s the diode – which can be made of a variety of different elements – that emits light.

Additionally, some automakers offer xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps as another premium lighting choice. These eliminate the solid lighting source entirely and work just by running the electric current through xenon gas.

The Benefits

Now, to be sure, the advantages and disadvantages of the different lighting sources themselves are pretty well established. It’s their application in automotive headlights that’s up for some debate.


Generally speaking, halogen headlights are still by far the least expensive, while LED headlights provide major benefits in terms of brightness, efficiency and how long they can last. LED headlamps, for example, can be about 275 percent brighter than their halogen counterparts, and they create a more natural-looking light as well. LEDs also require roughly 260 percent less energy to achieve those benefits.

As far as affordability goes, there are a number of factors to take into account, including the more expensive materials and higher production costs associated with LEDs. Further, that has to be multiplied by whatever number of individual LEDs are being used to make those eye-catching headlight designs we mentioned above.

Halogen light bulbs can be replaced for less than $30 per unit, but it can take 10 times that amount, and sometimes a lot more, if you need new LEDs. Of course, barring an accident, you may never have to replace your LED headlamps at all. That’s because they can last for up to 20,000 hours , which compares to the 1,000-hour lifespan of a typical halogen headlamp.

The Real World

Until recently, that would have been the end of the story. After all, except for their price, LED headlamps would seem to have an edge over halogen lights right across the board.

But in real-world third-party evaluations, it turns out that today’s LED headlamps actually have few advantages for drivers. Consumer Reports, for instance, called them “a technology that shows little benefit in our tests.” Plenty of cars with halogen headlights also have outperformed LED-equipped vehicles in the new headlamp evaluation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Consider the first round of tests, from 2016. That year, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class received a Poor headlight rating with its LED setup, while the Honda Accord – with what the IIHS said was “one of the best headlight systems evaluated” – was rated as Acceptable with standard halogen headlamps. More recently, in June, premium SUVs like the Volvo XC90 garnered Marginal headlight grades using LED headlights. The Toyota Highlander’s halogen headlamps, however, were rated as Acceptable.

(Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)

On the other hand, no vehicle with halogen headlights has ever earned the highest possible Good rating in these tests. The very few vehicles that have accomplished that all feature LED or HID projector-style headlamps. Projector-style configurations also were best for halogen headlamps.

Without getting too technical, a projector headlamp positions its light source so that it’s facing forward. The alternative is a reflector system in which the light source faces rearward and those reflectors redirect the light. This may seem counterintuitive, but reflector-style headlamps are available in popular vehicles like the Ford Explorer.

The Verdict

The bottom line is that LED headlights would be better than regular headlights if all other things were equal, but as indicated by the IIHS tests, those conditions seldom apply when you’re shopping for a new car. Until they do, be sure to check a vehicle’s specific headlamp ratings for more information.

By | 2018-06-19T15:49:39+00:00 August 23rd, 2017|Technology|10 Comments


  1. Tami Brown July 28, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Where can one find the complete data from the IIHS tests?

  2. Nick August 5, 2018 at 3:43 am - Reply

    You made the most important point of the entire article in the 2nd to last sentence: “those conditions seldom apply when you’re shopping for a new car”. In my opinion, these visually pleasing LED arrays are form before function. However, if you own a vehicle with existing, traditional halogen bulbs, you can easily replace them with LED bulbs (Canbus equipped systems can require a built in resistor to avoid dash errors). For example, I just replaced the halogen bulbs on my mom’s highlander for her and the difference is literally and figuratively night and day. The high beams, low beams, 4 turn signals, all brake lights, back up lights, interior bulbs and courtesy lights were done for less than $100. If you are actually interested in the comparison of led vs halogen, looking to new cars for the answer won’t give you an accurate result. The true comparison comes when you use direct replacement bulbs which have the same shape and basic functionality (e.g. projection or reflection). This is where the benefits are truly noticeable.

    • EchoEchoGuy October 18, 2018 at 3:18 pm - Reply

      Good info and I agree.

  3. Woody October 23, 2018 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    They should be banned as they provide no better vision and are blinding to the driver that is coming at you at 60 +mph. Do you really want someone heading for you who can’t see clearly. Not bright!

  4. sophie October 31, 2018 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    There is an unaddressed safety issue regarding the LED’S. As a young senior citizen with a budding cataract situation, I find it hazardous to drive at night due to the brightness of the lights in oncoming traffic. The LED headlights are akin to high beams and create a blinding and unsafe driving situation. The LED cons clearly outweigh the pros, as there is an entire 50+ age group exposed to potential car accidents and life threatening situations. There needs to be legislation enacted and an awareness instituted to minimize headlight intensity.

    • just a comment December 3, 2018 at 4:15 am - Reply

      what you’re typically seeing is the blue HID’s that are being used not LEDS

  5. Gus Line November 2, 2018 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    It is true the glare of any lights at night can be a problem. I am near on 80 years old and still driving and I have found that bu using amber (filters out blue) polarized night driving clip on glasses has reduced the glare of on coming car lights to a more comfortable situation.

  6. Eric Lucas November 2, 2018 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    They are no better than the old style
    They blind on coming traffic. If you are having a hard time seeing with plain headlight’s slow down.

  7. Grant November 7, 2018 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    If you have vision problems you probably shouldn’t be on the road at night. The lights that are typically blinding are HID lights and especially HID lights that are put on vehicles in factory housings. HID housing have special structures to ensure the light is pointing downward rather than directly into the windshield of oncoming traffic. Factory halogen housings don’t have these same structures as the light is weaker and more diffuse and therefore the structures are unneeded. Also keep in mind any vehicle riding higher than you will appear brighter than normal headlights due to the height of the light from the road. If you are being blinded by oncoming traffic slow down and use the white line on the side of the road to both avert your eyes from direct light and as a marker for the edge of the road.

    • Susan December 12, 2018 at 11:22 pm - Reply

      Spoken like someone who has never had the problem. This attitude is all well and good until you’re in a position where you are actually faced with not being able to drive yourself somewhere at night, when you’ll realize what a severe limitation it is and begin desperately researching better solutions. That said, yellow safety glasses are a quick, inexpensive (albeit minor) improvement when faced with glare problems. Laser surgery is another. HID headlights and curve adapting headlights are great for those with poor night vision.

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