Programmable LEDs

LEDs are the new frontier of car tuning! Internal and external car lights which can be programmed and customised

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Programmable LEDs

Car tuning is a phenomenon many have defined as a genuine modern art form, which is gaining in popularity among car enthusiasts across the globe.

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Tuning, from the verb “to tune”, or adjust, perfect, is simply modifying a vehicle, whether one with 2, 3 or 4 wheels, compared to what the manufacturer had originally conceived and envisaged and in accordance with individual tastes and requirements, specific to various extents.

Before reaching Italy, car tuning, like many other fashion trends from the 20th and the early 21st Century, began to spread across the United States of America (starting in the 1960s), with car models such as Hot Rods, T-Buckets or Lowriders, or two-wheel vehicles such as Choppers, motorbikes which starred in the film Easy Rider. The importance of this type of activity has reached such high levels that a proper car manufacturer, Abarth, has been offering the market car models (prevalently FIAT) for some years now, which the company tunes and modifies, or accompanies with tuning kits and accessories to modify or boost their performance. A kind of standard-production car tuning. Naturally, Abarth, which has been operating on the international market for decades, observes the strict laws on the subject of car tuning in the various countries in which it does business.

What does the legislative system entail?

Let's start off by saying that, at least in Italy, car tuning is a kind of taboo, and before devoting "heart and soul" (and pocket) to this activity, one needs to know about the possible administrative and sanctions and penalties one could encounter.

In Italy, therefore, it is impossible to modify one's vehicle freely. Unlike other countries, such as Germany, Switzerland or Spain, the Italian legislation puts spanners in the works of specialists or mere enthusiasts with bureaucratic red tape which is often very difficult to overcome, although in recent years things have been changing. What one needs to keep in mind at all times is that the Italian Government, via the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, sets out in specific laws which replacement and/or supplementary tools and components of vehicle parts can be used and fitted freely. In practice, anyone who fails to use type-approved parts is subject to administrative sanctions.

Over the years, however, a succession of laws have gradually rendered this sector more "free”. For instance, in 1997 circulation with type-approved exhausts was approved; between 2000 and 2002 tinted films for windows were liberalised; in 2003 styling kits were type-approved, while in 2013 the Italian Government permitted the installation of "special" wheel rims and the assembly of tyres of different sizes compared with those specified in the vehicle registration certificate. What's more, the Italian Government obliges those who wish to modify their vehicle to submit their modified vehicle to scrupulous inspection by specialist engineers in order to obtain type-approval for circulation for the said vehicle. Indeed, to circulate without sanctions, it is compulsory to undergo a mechanical inspection at a specialist European Body where the car or motorbike has to pass meticulous testing. All modifications in terms of mechanical components must be noted in the vehicle registration certificate, whereas every styling change must be accompanied by type-approval documents for each individual part.

Car tuning, beyond what one might think, is for many a genuine job more than just a passion or hobby. In fact, often the work to be done on a car or motorcycle to change its appearance radically, both inside and out, requires skills that are far from superficial and this leads many enthusiasts to contact specialists in the field.

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Programmable LEDs
There is one aspect of car tuning, the one relating to modifications to the interior and exterior lights system, which is recently proving very successful, especially for the spreading of one type of technology which is now available at affordable prices and easy to install. We are talking about programmable LEDs, i.e. LEDs which are increasingly representing the new frontier of car tuning, and which are used both inside and outside the vehicle.

LED is the acronym for Light Emitting Diode. This type of technology is extremely widespread in everyday life: just think of the many high-resolution latest-generation LCD displays on TVs, smartphones, tablets or smartwatches, as well as the small monitors on microwave ovens, alarm clocks, or other household appliances. LEDs were initially conceived as indicator lights, but in recent years they have started to be considered as genuine light bulbs, as they are increasingly cost-effective, versatile, multi-coloured and adaptable to any situation. Compared to traditional incandescent light bulbs or neon tubes, LED lights provide several extra advantages: they are more resistant to knocks and vibrations, they are brighter (provided they are top-quality), the emit very pure coloured light, they light instantaneously without dimming, they are very-low temperature, they last longer (more than 100,000 hours, i.e. 11.5 years, a life span which in the majority of cases exceeds the actual "life" of the vehicle itself) and they consume less energy for the same level of brightness. These are all factors which have fostered their use in both the basic interior and exterior trim levels of latest-generation cars by car manufacturers, and also in modifications involved in car tuning.

There are several types of LED for the styling and functional enhancement of cars: 5W lamps, which are usually used as side lights and headlights, but which are also used for the interior lighting (ceiling light, drawers or puddle indicator lights on doors) or for exterior lighting (number plate lights and side indicator lights, for example). H6W lamps on the other hand are like the 5W lamps but they feature a bayonet connector and asymmetrical attachments, and they are usually used in less recent cars. There are also Torpedo LEDs, which are generally used for interior ceiling lights and for number plate lights. Then there are LEDs which replace the bayonet units: these are larger LEDs which are used as front and rear side indicator lights, rear break/side lights, reverse lights or rear fog lights. Another interesting stratagem to customise the interiors of one's car is the use of LED strips, powered directly by the central electric system, via the cigarette lighter, with colour, operating mode and brightness level which can be programmed and adjusted via a wireless controller. The kits available on the market are easy to install and program (or are pre-programmed). All you need is a USB socket and a PC or dedicated card and thanks to purpose-designed controllers, anyone can control the ignition mode and the emission of the luminous movement, graphics, stroboscopic effect, default digital messages, possible indicators, symbols (such as crosses, circles, squares, etc.) and many other types of communication or decorative symbols. Programmable LED technology therefore opens up endless tuning opportunities for one's car or motorbike, since it can be installed almost anywhere, it can be connected to power sources which are easy to reach on the vehicle and provide light sources featuring preventive programming.

But how is it possible to program "lights"?

In actual fact, the simple description of LED technology is not enough to understand how lights can be led to operate the way we want them to. As mentioned earlier, there are systems, or circuits, connected to LEDs available for sale, which make it possible to do anything, or nearly. For instance, a very popular product in this sector is what is commonly referred to as a VU meter Stereo circuit, which allows synchronisation of the LEDs to the rhythm of music. These "psychedelic" lights are really popular with young people and can be installed anywhere. LEDs on wheels or on wheel rims which synchronise with the audio emitted by the speakers, perhaps with the latter also boosted in perfect "tuning" style, are extremely effective and definitely draw attention. Another product which is available on the market is a rear-view mirror with LED lights on the rear, arranged in such a way that, via simple programming, they are capable of displaying wording or geometric shapes or pixelated drawings, or a LED system for the interior lighting which works "in compartments", i.e. it lights up in the zones where the driver or the passengers are thanks to an additional presence detector system comprising sensors placed on the seats or on the doors.

Naturally, it is also possible to self-construct these circuits and learn from on-line forums to adjust the operation of the lights. The instructions to follow are, more often than not, quite simple for anyone with a basic knowledge in this sector (you need only know the basic concepts of electronics, such as power supply, voltage, resistance, etc.). In short, the only limit is the imagination and, thanks also to the increasingly varied and multifarious market of products available, purchasing original coloured LED systems to customise our vehicles is now much simpler and cost-effective than ever.

What other instances of car tuning operations can we mention?

There are three categories of modifications (with related sub-categories) that fall under this type of activity:
1.    Styling modifications to the body or to parts of the body and modifications to the interior:
2.    Mechanical modifications to the engine, to the braking system, to the exhaust system or to the driving ride;
3.    Modifications to the audio and video system.

The first category concerns the styling car tuning, which is in turn sub-divided into two sub-categories, styling tuning of the exterior and styling tuning of the interior.

Naturally, the styling tuning of the exterior is the most famous part of car tuning, the one that is most "attractive" and, often, most colourful. It concerns the body of the vehicle, which is supplemented with features such as "skirts", rear spoilers, additional front and rear under-bumpers, various spoilers, modified or brand new bumpers featuring an eccentric, sophisticated or sporty design, the installation of air intakes on the bonnet or on the roof, the extension of the wings, the replacement of the door mirrors and direction indicators or, in extreme cases, the outright remodelling of the body itself in order to modify the original silhouette of the vehicle to suit individual tastes, both in terms of aerodynamics and for purely aesthetic reasons. Other works concern the partial or total repainting of the body itself, the replacement of the front and/or rear light clusters with others in a different colour or equipped with different lighting technology, more Retro or more modern, the application of stickers or the use of “wrapping”, a special technique which uses a special film to change the colour of the car body without repainting it and which, in some cases, also permits the protection of the original paintwork underneath. This technique also allows the use of a spray gun to design anything on the car (wording, flags, icons and much more) as if they were genuine prints, which can be removed when one gets tired of them or wants to change the appearance of the vehicle again.

Styling tuning of the interior on the other hand concerns the internal instrumentation of the vehicle, such as the dashboard, the steering wheel, the gear stick knob and boot, the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals, the seat upholstery, the interior lights and the interior upholstery panels. This work is painstaking and very delicate, and it takes time and skill.

The second category of this fascinating world of car tuning is mechanical tuning, which involves invasive work on the vehicle and, in particular on the engine and on the exhaust system, the brakes, the wheels and the suspension. The objective in this case is to enhance the car, the motorbike, the quad, the van, the scooter, the lorry or the kart, while always abiding by the above-mentioned legal restrictions. Indeed, this is the part of car tuning which is under most control, with good reason, by engineers in charge of the final testing.

The third category of car tuning involves audio and video. Until just a few years ago, modifications were only made to the audio system, with boosted speakers, ultra-accessorised quality stereos, crossovers capable of separating sounds and directing them to the various speakers placed all around the interior of the car body. Over recent years, focus has moved on to video contents too, with audio sources equipped with DVD players to allow film footage and photos to be displayed on a screen. In this case too, there are specific legislative restrictions to observe, since multimedia contents are very dangerous and may distract the driver's attention from the road. The pressure exerted by car manufacturers has managed to overcome this problem and these days almost all medium-end cars and higher are equipped with a high-resolution latest-generation touch display.

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