Ingolstadt, Germany – It wasn’t that long ago that automotive lighting served merely to illuminate, in only the most literal sense of the word.

Huge advances in technology have enabled engineers to develop fully integrated lighting systems that behave with almost extra-sensory perception.

Indeed, throughout our tour of Audi’s new “Lighting Assistance Centre” at the company’s Inglostadt headquarters, designers, engineers and spokespeople continuously referred to headlamps as the “eyes” of the vehicle.

But their functions extend far beyond the visual. Onboard radar, sensors and cameras work with lighting to produce vehicles with 360-degree awareness of their surroundings – and in some cases to alert and even avoid pedestrians and obstacles.

Luxury vehicles have led the way in research and development. But many of the breakthrough designs of a few years ago have become commonplace on mainstream vehicles. Twinkling LED driving lights, developed by Audi and once found only on top-of-the-line imported luxury sedans, are now appearing in even the humble Corolla; and every manufacturer has a signature look that instantly defines and identifies their products.

Meanwhile, premium manufacturers are exploring new realms of technology that push the boundaries of what we ever imagined possible.

A neck-and-neck, down-to-the-wire race between BMW and Audi over who would be first to bring laser light technology to market was finally decided last summer when BMW delivered its first shipment of i8 plug-in hybrids to customers in Munich. It was a fiercely contested battle, with Audi’s special-edition R8 LMX being the first laser-headlight equipped vehicle to hit the production line.

A peek inside the Lighting Assistance Centre (LAC) gives us an idea of what’s in store for the German brand in both the near and conceivable future.

Eleven floors beneath the LAC lies the “Lichtkanal”, a 120-metre long drivable light tunnel that’s the longest of its kind in Europe. We descend via cargo elevator to the matte-black underground tunnel, which is flanked by workshops and studio space.

The LAC is part of Audi’s strategy to solidify their position as the “world’s leading brand for automotive lighting technology”.

Here, further development of their existing “Matrix” technology takes place. First debuted on the flagship A8 sedan, Audi’s Matrix headlights are comprised of 25 different segments containing diodes, lenses and reflectors. The use of LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, has revolutionized the headlight industry for their compact size and weight, and ability to function up to 10 times faster than a conventional bulb while at the same time consuming far less energy and emitting very little heat. They work with the car’s onboard cameras, sensors and navigation system to anticipate corners and adapt accordingly, illuminate and warn pedestrians and can deactivate certain portions to avoid blinding oncoming drivers.

Their compact size is also letting designers explore new design possibilities. Audi considers lighting to be more than safety and styling – it defines the very essence of their brand. We were shown several imaginatively styled headlights, resembling honeycomb patterns, basket weaves and other intricate patterns formed by stacking LEDs in three-dimensional constructions. Amber front turn signals and rear taillights move sequentially to indicate the vehicle’s intended direction, and brake lights change in intensity relative to the force at which they’re applied.

All of these will see production shortly.

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