As people complain that vehicles look increasingly similar, designers are leaning harder on lighting to distinguish their brands. We’ve seen holographic taillights, matrix taillights, edge-lit light blades, and more. Now supplier Magna is demonstrating it’s latest “Breakthrough Lighting” on a prototype SUV liftgate it dubs “Litgate” that features myriad functional as well as decorative or communication lighting that remains invisible until lit.

What is Breakthrough Lighting?

The double-entendre of Magna’s lighting breakthrough is that conventional LED light sources can be used to shine through a class-A painted surface, without suffering any sort of color shift, and while remaining entirely hidden when off. For now, this technology is demonstrated for non-functional lighting—presenting logos, accents, communication—in any available LED color. On the prototype Litgate all functional lighting—park, stop, turn, reverse—all shines through a polycarbonate lens that’s tinted dark enough to obscure the LED light sources when they’re off.

Laser Ablation Enables the Breakthrough

Magna has developed a process whereby LED lighting elements can be affixed to a thermoplastic surface—typically polycarbonate or thermoplastic polyolefin—and then primed and painted with a class-A finish. The areas where lighting is desired then get microscopic holes drilled through the paint, using a laser ablation technique (also known as photo-ablation or laser blasting). This is the process employed in laser dentistry to penetrate enamel, and here it’s the layers of paint and primer that get heated with enough concentrated laser energy to evaporate or sublimate.

It happens so quickly and precisely that adjacent paint is not heated or deformed. This process is used to drill thousands of 1.5-micron-diameter holes, just through the paint and primer layers, which aren’t typically much thicker than 1.5 microns. Following the ablation process, the part is clear-coated, making it impossible to see or feel the tiny holes. These holes are separated by way more than 1.5 microns, but the light shining through them blends together to appear continuous.

What Does Breakthrough Lighting Cost?

The process adds cost, but the Litgate prototype demonstrates how modularity can recoup those costs. Note that the hexagonal lighting elements are repeated (saving tooling costs), and the illuminated logo and lighting accents could negate the need for exterior trim pieces, saving more investment.

When Will Breakthrough Lighting Be Available?

Magna says the technology is fully developed and should be production ready in 2023. Obviously for this to happen, contracts would already need to have been signed, but company officials are not yet at liberty to discuss them, so we’ll just have to keep an eye out for this breakthrough.