MicroLEDs have a bright future in automotive displays

MicroLED displays rival the picture quality of OLED-based displays and outclass LCD screens while also offering improved brightness and lower risk of image burn-in. However, displays using microLEDs are hard to find. The high cost and cutting-edge nature of microLEDs mean that large screens using the technology are extremely expensive.

While not commonly used yet, microLEDs may be about to break into the mainstream through the growing automotive display market.

The advantages of MicroLEDs

MicroLEDs use microscopic LEDs, three per pixel, to display images. The screen controller can turn each LED on or off individually, enabling high levels of contrast and color control. The control of these LEDs is also extremely fast — they can be turned on or off within nanoseconds.

Organic LEDs (OLEDs), in contrast, take microseconds to change a pixel’s color or luminous intensity and can have visibly slower response times as a result. LCDs are even slower.

Other benefits of the MicroLED approach include a high density of pixels (with specialized displays offering as much as 14,000 pixels per inch), a wide color gamut, and high display longevity.

OLED TVs, for example, offer a lifespan of around 30,000 hours due to how these screens are constructed.

OLEDs depend on organic carbon- and hydrogen-based chemistry to produce images, making OLED screens susceptible to degradation by humidity, oxygen, and heat. MicroLEDs use an inorganic compound, gallium nitride, that should be much more resistant to environmental conditions.

MicroLEDs also offer no risk of image burn-in — in theory, at least. The inorganic compounds used in the LEDs aren’t nearly as susceptible to degradation as the organic compounds used in OLEDs, meaning static images won’t be as likely to leave afterimages in the microLED screen.

A microLED display will also require no color filter, unlike OLEDs, allowing them to produce more light than OLEDs without drawing additional power.

MicroLEDs are very power efficient due to their simplicity, especially when compared to LCD displays. Lower power consumption and improved brightness could help maufacturers design more energy-efficient televisions and low-power screens.

MicroLEDs should also be highly cost-efficient in the long run — though current costs for manufacturing microLED screens are high. However, microLEDs use hardware also found in OLEDs, like printed circuit boards for lighting control. As a result, manufacturers may be able to apply existing design strategies to reduce microLED screen fabrication costs.

Why MicroLEDs aren’t popular (yet)

Despite all these advantages, there are very few microLED screens available to consumers. The first microLED television, for example, was only announced in 2018. The product was Samsung’s “The Wall,” a massive 146-inch television marketed to the luxury consumer market.

A 110-inch 4K model of the television, also a Samsung product, launched in 2021. The product’s retail price was $156,000 — well out of the price range of most consumers. Smaller and more affordable versions of the TV are planned but were pushed back to next year — possibly due to high production costs and unexpected manufacturing challenges.

While microLEDs seem like a perfect successor to OLED and LCD technology, they are expensive — in part because of how new the technology is. Early applications of new screen technology often are, and it could be some time before manufacturing costs come down.

Large consumer devices, like televisions, require many of the currently expensive microLEDs. This means larger screens could be a more significant challenge and require a more considerable investment than less ambitious projects with smaller screens.

Over time, as manufacturers learn more about the technology, they can reduce costs dramatically. If a new technology can catch on in a luxury market, there’s a good chance that factory innovation will help the technology filter down to non-luxury audiences, as well.

Early, experimental designs are likely to be costly, however. In the near term, the high cost of microLEDs may mean early breakthrough products may have to come in the form of smaller displays.

It’s possible that microLED won’t find its audience in traditional consumer markets, like television screens and computer monitors. Instead, rapidly growing niche markets — like automotive infotainment displays and digital instrument clusters — could provide the foundation the new technology needs.

The emergence of MicroLED auto displays

The growing prevalence of large, digital center information displays and infotainment systems has made flat-panel display technology much more important to the auto industry. Automotive displays have emerged as the fifth-largest small and medium panel display market, close behind smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and monitors.

While more conventional technology, like LCD, remains popular, a growing number of electronics manufacturers — like BOE, AUO, TCL, and Tesla light sources supplier EOI — are either developing or beginning to seek certification for new microLED auto displays.

Automotive lighting manufacturers are also beginning to use microLEDs in new headlamp systems. In 2019, automotive lighting and electronics provider Hella announced that it had developed a new microLED lighting system with more than 30,000 pixels.

In the announcement, the company also said that the “new lighting system has been ordered by a European premium manufacturer for large-scale production” and series production of the system would begin sometime in 2022.

MicroLEDs have a bright future in automotive displays

Hella’s digital SSL HD automotive lighting system with high precision digital pixel switching (Source: Hella GmbH & Co. KgaA)

However, the long certification cycle of new automotive products and the high cost of early microLED screens are likely to delay microLED display adoption. Even in small displays, the high cost of microLEDs is likely to be a barrier, and automotive regulations mean innovative products must clear certain hurdles before they can come to market.

Right now, even manufacturers known for adopting cutting-edge automotive technology, like Tesla and Chinese electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer Arcfox, have continued to use LCD screens rather than technology like microLEDs.

For the moment, consumers wanting to install microLED displays in their cars will instead have to look to manufacturers like VueReal. The company partners directly with OEMs to design custom microLED display replacements.

Still, the technology could serve as a long-lasting, low-cost, and energy-efficient replacement for LCDs soon. MicroLEDs offer major advantages over OLEDs and LCDs in the form of improved lifespan and detail level. The small size of automotive displays also significantly cuts down on their production cost. For manufacturers of experimental microLED displays, this combination of opportunity and reduced expense makes the automotive market a more attractive option for early microLED displays.

While they aren’t in widespread use right now, innovations in the automotive lighting and display industries could encourage their adoption. Television manufacturers already have plans to use the technology, and partnerships between major automakers and lighting designers could help encourage the early manufacture of microLED screens.

By next year, the first microLED screens may be available in cars — though consumers may have to go to display and lighting manufacturers, rather than vehicle OEMs, to secure a screen.

About the author

Emily Newton is a technical writer and editor-in-chief of Revolutionized – an online magazine exploring trends in science, technology and industry.