Early road vehicles used fuelled lamps, before the availability of electric lighting. The Ford Model T used carbide lamps for headlamps and oil lamps for tail lamps. It did not have all-electric lighting as a standard feature until several years after introduction. Dynamos for automobile headlamps were first fitted around 1908 and became commonplace in 1920s automobiles.

Silent film star Florence Lawrence is often credited with designing the first “auto signaling arm”, a predecessor to the modern turn signal, along with the first mechanical brake signal. She did not patent these inventions, however, and as a result she received no credit for—or profit from—either one. Tail lamps and brake lamps were introduced around 1915, and by 1919 “dip” headlamps were available. The sealed beam headlamp was introduced in 1936 and standardised as the only acceptable type in the USA in 1940. Self-cancelling turn signals were developed in 1940. By 1945 headlamps and signal lamps were integrated into the body styling. Halogen headlamp light sources were developed in Europe in 1960. HID headlamps were produced starting in 1991. In 1993, the first LED tail lamps were installed on mass-production automobiles. LED headlamps were introduced in the first decade of the 21st century.