Ever since the first time an automobile designer had the idea to use some of the engine’s power to illuminate a pair of headlamps, drivers have sped fearlessly into the dark abyss of the night. The good old halogen bulb headlights that have ubiquitously guided several generations of motorists are still standard issue on most cars sold today.

However, new ways to illuminate the night road are rapidly gaining popularity with the aftermarket accessory crowd. Seeking improvements in durability and performance, many consumers are gravitating toward two relatively new headlight technologies: HID and LED.

When discussing HID vs LED headlights, it is helpful to understand first what the two acronyms represent and the basics of how each type functions.

  • HID — High-Intensity Discharge bulbs, sometimes known as Xenon lights due to the gas they contain to prevent flickering on startup, were introduced as headlights by BMW in the early 1990s. HID bulbs produce light when a high-voltage current of electricity vaporizes metallic salts contained in a sealed tube and creates a sustained arc.
  • LED — Light Emitting Diodes have been around for years. They started catching on as a headlight option in the early 2000s. LEDs are a particular kind of semiconductor that relies on the phenomena of electroluminescence–using energized electrons to produce photons at the rate of thousands per second–to generate a continuous light.

When used as car headlights, each of these two lighting methods brings with it specific benefits as well as drawbacks.

Those who are considering switching from stock halogen incandescent bulbs to either HID or LED should carefully think through what advantages they hope to gain. They should also consider what problems they will have to cope with before making the final decision.

Three broad areas to consider to make an informed decision on headlight type are general performance, shortcomings and upgrade considerations.

General Performance HID VS LED Headlights

HID and LED lights are similar in the amount of light they typically emit. However, HIDs are slightly ahead with an average of 3,000 Lumens. For comparison, a typical incandescent headlamp emits around 1,400 Lumens.

HID Pros

  • HID lights emit an almost pure white light that can be extremely bright. White light mimics sunshine and may help the driver achieve the feeling of daytime driving.
  • For broad, evenly spread illumination, HID lights lead. The full pattern in which the lamps emit light enables the driver to have a better view of the sides of the road.
  • The heat radiated from HID lights dissipates to the front of the lamp. This forward-facing heat disbursement works well for headlights since it does not have much effect on nearby components.

LED Pros

  • LED lights turn on instantly when the driver actuates the switch. No flicker is present when LED lights initiate.
  • The unidirectional light pattern of LEDs makes reflective road signs more visible. This characteristic may make it easier to identify freeway exits and lane closures at night.
  • Oncoming drivers do not experience a blinding glare when approaching LED headlights. LED lights have the advantage of being lucent enough to light the road. This is also without adversely affecting the visibility of other drivers on the road.


One advantage that halogen bulbs have over HID and LED lamps is the lower cost associated with their use. Prices for both of the newer types are trending downward. However, they do still represent a sizable investment compared to most cars’ original lighting equipment. Both HID and LED lights have a few other drawbacks associated with their use as headlights.

HID Cons

  • If installed improperly or misused, HID lights may produce a blinding glare that can impair other drivers’ ability to see. The potentially dangerous extreme brightness of HID headlights has prompted several states to ban their use.
  • HID lights require a few seconds to warm up before they are fully functional. A slight flickering of the light occurs when starting up while the xenon gas reaches operating temperature.

LED Cons

  • The majority of heat produced by LEDs is rear-facing. When configured for use as headlights, the car’s engine is the recipient of the majority of this radiated heat. Many times LED headlights will require the use of additional cooling systems to ensure proper vehicle operation.
  • LED headlights have a shorter projected lighting distance than HIDs. The range and width of the driver’s view are slightly less than when using HID lights.

Installation Notes

HID and LED headlights each have unique characteristics that require consideration when retrofitting a vehicle’s lighting system. Due to the potential for improper installation of either type of light to create a dangerous or destructive situation, a professional should perform the work.

HID Upgrades

  • HID headlamps must use a precisely-aimed projector lens to reduce blinding glare. The size requirements of this assembly can make fitting difficult or impossible.
  • The larger size of HID lights and the need for ballasts to provide the initiating charge may make the assembly too large to retrofit on some vehicles.
  • Drivers who drive an average of 1.5 hours per day with the lights on can expect HID headlights to last about four years.

LED Upgrades

  • The small size of LEDs usually makes them easier to install than HID.
  • LEDs are flexible, making it possible to configure their light rays in various ways. This ability usually makes LEDs easier to install on most cars.
  • Cooling systems must usually be installed to prevent engine overheating caused by the back-heat produced by LED lights. As technology improves, the heating problem will eventually be lessened or eliminated.

Bottom Line, Which is Best?

Both LED and HID headlight systems have pros and cons that could make one more suitable in a given situation than the other. Currently, the trend seems to be going in the direction of LEDs. People already use the familiar diodes in so many lighting applications. Their sheer versatility and popularity probably cause users to gravitate toward them when considering any form of automotive lighting purchase.

In just about any situation where motorists require the most intense light possible and blinding other drivers is not an issue, HID fits the bill.

For specialty driving such as off-road wilderness or search and rescue, HID may still be the best option.

Law enforcement and other first response entities will also probably continue to use HID on vehicles for the ability to bring daytime conditions to the night. The biggest asset of an HID —its brightness—is also its biggest drawback. The possibility of misaligned or dirty HID focusing lenses blinding oncoming drivers may lower many people’s estimation of it as an acceptable choice for an automotive lighting option.

For most car owners, however, LED seems to be the best choice.

With price points that are gradually falling as different uses for the lights increase, it is almost sure that companies will invest in further development and problem solving for LED systems.

LEDs are attractive to car manufacturers for several reasons, making it likely that they will begin adding them as standard equipment on more vehicles.

Firstly, the price point for LEDs is on a downward trend.

Secondly, the lights use significantly less power than incandescent lamps. Also, with the push to make cars more fuel efficient, reduced consumption of any resource is a plus.

Finally, LEDs enjoy widespread awareness and acceptance, making it easy for the public to select them as a light source.

Featured image credit: CC0 Creative Commons, Pexels via https://pixabay.com.