How Much Longer Will Cars Have Cigarette Lighter Ports?

Depending on the age of your car, it might contain a round 12 V power outlet in the dash, or possibly in the elbow compartment. And depending on your own age, you might know that as the cigarette lighter port. Whereas this thing used to have a single purpose — lighting cigars and cigarettes via hot coil — there are myriad uses today, from charging a phone to powering a dash camera to running one of those tire-inflating machines in a roadside emergency.

But how did it come to be a power source inside the vehicle? And how long will it stick around? With smoking on the decline for several decades, fewer and fewer people have the need for a cigarette lighter than do, say, a way to charge their phone. How long will the power source survive in this configuration?

A Little History

Image via US Patent #2959664

The electric lighter is older than you might think. The first one was patented in the early 1880s and sold as a cigar lighter. In 1921, a patent was issued to Joshua M. Morris for an electric lighter with a removable element.

A few years later in 1928, a company named Casco created a lighter especially made for the automobile. This lighter used a cord and reel to draw the lighter back into the dashboard.

The wireless version that some of us dinosaurs actually used to light cigarettes in the 90s was developed by Casco in 1956 and patented in 1960. After that, car lighters didn’t change, but they did proliferate — some cars had a second lighter for the rear passengers to go with the ashtray in every door.

Powerful Auto-motives

The earliest cars didn’t have electrical systems at all, just a magneto to provide a spark. Cars didn’t even have batteries until about 1920, when an electric starter motors began to be used in conjunction with DC generators. Now, people could start think about electrical accessories. But there was a problem — the widely varying voltages provided by these systems.

When the alternator came along, then power got more serious. The AC produced by the alternator gets converted to fairly uniform DC to charge the battery, and remains steady regardless of the alternator’s speed.

Socket To Me

My own setup. Notice the old, dead adapter at bottom right which failed to maintain electrical contact after so many years.

Car lighter sockets were not originally intended to power anything but car lighters, but since they involve a handy little powered and grounded receptacle, they were bound to be co-opted for other uses. This led to the development of ANSI/SAE J563 to ensure compatibility between these 12 V receptacles and power plugs made by different manufacturers.

According to the spec, the cylinder contact must be negative, and the center contact point positive. Once that specification was settled, it was open season on electrical automotive accessories.

That said, the car-lighter-socket-as-power-outlet is not without its problems. The internal diameters of these sockets vary, as do the depths. Therefore, 12 V power plugs usually have spring-loaded contacts. This allows for a range of tolerances, sure, but it also means that the plugs can lose electrical contact. And since the output voltage of alternators still isn’t perfect, automotive accessories have to be made to run between roughly 9 V and 14 V DC. Many of them contain a DC-to-DC converter for a steady USB voltage.

Up In Smoke?

At this point, we are all quite used to having power inside the vehicle. Although many cars now ship with a receptacle labeled 12 V with a 120 W maximum and no cigarette lighter in sight, more and more cars are shipping with USB-A and USB-C ports instead. But what about all those accessories that require more juice, like tire inflators? Will those run on USB-C in the future? They may have to, unless the round automobile accessory outlet becomes eternal, like the floppy disk save icon.

103 thoughts on “How Much Longer Will Cars Have Cigarette Lighter Ports?

          1. What about the problem where USB-PD has no clear cut way to define power flow direction? Sometimes your USB power bank gets charged by your laptop, other times the laptop starts charging from the power bank.

            Lighter sockets are also used for aux power INPUT, for example when you’re swapping the battery of a modern car, so the ECU won’t crap out on you. It’s just a direct connection to the battery through a fuse and a relay, sometimes not even the relay, so power can go both ways.

    1. USB-C PD would handle it fine, you can get up to 240W and 48V From that.
      That’s the best candidate that currently exists to replace the old 12V lighter sockets, and it wouldn’t be hard to design an adapter that plugs into a USB-C PD outlet and outputs to 12V or 24V lighter style sockets, so you can still use your old devices.

      1. Way more efficient to take that high power device straight off the battery/alternator than throw in a buck/boost USB-PD negotiation setup – no voltage conversions at all most likely for the old devices, or maybe one little one that turns that 12v into 1v for the microprocessor powered display etc.

        Plus I’d personally say USB-C PD is garbage that won’t handle it fine more often than not – though I agree it certainly could do it. But in practice it probably won’t when you need it to – as you need a cable that actually works and identifies itself for the high power stuff, and both devices to negotiate to a voltage and current they can work with – so many points of failure and cables that are way more delicate than a simple 12v lead. So when you inevitably break the cable odds are pretty fair none of the other cables you can get your hands on will work for that high power device, and no way to twist the two conductors back together on the other side of a break etc at the roadside either.

        So yeah I really doubt the 12V aux sockets are going anywhere in favour in USB power, there will be USB power in the cabin for the drivers phone no doubt but replacing all the dirt cheap, reliable and simple 12v sockets vehicles can have in the boot etc with more expensive, less reliable USB-PD isn’t going to happen IMO.

        1. More to the point, you will have USB-C cables that negotiate the right power, but aren’t built with the proper wire gauge to handle the amount because the Chinese manufacturer used the right chip but skimped on the cable to save a penny.

          Poof goes the cable up in smoke when you turn on the compressor or cooler box.

        2. I would also be concerned about the distance the power has to go, over those tiny wires.. If you’re trying to inflate a tire, you’re probably gonna have the compressor several feet away from the outlet, at least. I’m not sure on the spec, but i dont think the 240W is gonna travel that distance.

        3. I’ve had great luck running soldering irons and my MiL’s MacBook pro (and other laptops, but the MacBook is the thirstiest) off of power delivery. Also, if you’re running a compressor off your car then its engine is running, so an extra 80-95% efficient power conversion layer isn’t a big deal.

          That said, all the extra electronics on both sides and a good PD cable add non-insignificant costs relative to 12V’ing everything.

          I guess I’m gonna “both sides” this and opine that 12V plugs should continue being a thing, especially as it’s what my compressor runs off of, but I personally want PD plugs in future cars so I can just plug a laptop or soldering iron (I’ve run mine off a power bank before to fix a rodent-chewed spark plug cable in a parking lot) or power bank or phone or whatever in without an extra dongle. I’ve gone full USB-C with my consumer electronics, I’d love to buy any new automotive accessories in it too. It could be hugely useful to run a compressor off of a power bank!

          1. Yeah running a laptop generally means at a desk, indoors, or at least in a much more controlled and not currently bouncing over potholes environment than the stuff you want to power in the car, and you are much more likely to be able to deal with that 15W only charger/cable that fails negotiation etc – your PD enabled laptop can probably charge off that while asleep, maybe even when on but idle, will warn you of the problem so you can go find a not yet broken or high power rated USB-C cable, and as it has its own internal battery it will function normally the rest of the time anyway. You don’t want to add a battery or really try to power form a battery your high power consumption and rather on demand need power now devices like fridge and tyre inflator so it can run for perhaps 1 whole hour in each day…

            I’m very much on record as not really liking USB-C in general or USB-PD and especially not both – as its way to costly, complex, with too many points of failure to really seem like a good choice. But I agree it can work in many cases and having become the standard the annoyances it brings we are going to have to live with. However automotive in general really isn’t the right place for it though.

            You want a connector that can take having several Kg of lateral load when something shifts and hits it or pulls on the cable, that has big honking well sprung contact patches so the oil and dirt don’t matter nearly as much to passing enough current, large enough to be easy to clean, available in ‘waterproof’, really easy to insert with good staying power etc.
            You don’t want the many pinned, any which way up high speed data cable that will fall out if you look at it funny but just happens to if you wish upon a star to maybe deliver over 100W…

          2. You are assuming cars are going to stay 12v for there systems but there are already a few on 48v already making usb-c, or a new accessary connector, much more feasible.

          3. > I personally want PD plugs in future cars so I can just plug a laptop or soldering iron

            This is why I love that my Pinecil has a barrel jack in addition to a USB-C connector. It can be powered from (just about) anything. I keep a matching plug with my Pinecil kit just in case – much easier than trying to wire USB-C in the field !

          4. >You are assuming cars are going to stay 12v for there systems but there are already a few on 48v already making usb-c, or a new accessary connector, much more feasible.

            Hmm, that wouldn’t be a bad thing – as much as the current socket works alright something similar but properly standardised across all models and probably with a twist lock built in to ensure retention would make sense. Plus there isn’t really a need for the socket to be that deep when you don’t intend to make it function as a lighter for the smokers.

            That said I’m not convinced the automotive world will actually go 48v, there is so much inertia to 12v and not any great reason to switch I can see when 12v works fine and is what everyone’s existing equipment wants.

          5. One issue with USB-PD is that it uses regulated power. Why? Because you have to regulate it.

            Ordinary lighter sockets are just a wire to the battery, so you can power things without the car actually being powered on. USB-PD is constantly consuming power out of the battery to run the DC-DC converter/regulator so it’s a vampire load on the car and that causes problems when you e.g. leave your car standing for two weeks while you’re on holiday.

            Contrary to what you might assume, even EVs suffer from this problem because they too have a 12 Volt auxillary battery that actually runs the low voltage electronics, and gets charged from the main battery when the car is switched on. The DC-DC charger is switched off because it’s a big switching power supply with significant idle losses that would drain the traction battery. This has caused some issues with EVs in cold countries, where the 12 Volt battery dies because it won’t charge as fast when cold and won’t recover the charge over short driving distances.

    2. Try even charging a phone from USB in a car. Our Peugeot e208 sports a USB C port, but it doesn’t do any of the fast charging modes it *could* support. The Anker adapter in the 12v socket works much better.

    3. This is One of those things when I wonder.. surely, this must be geared toward the traditional path? “The new stuff is two weak”, etc.
      Though as others here have stated, the lighter port is only rated 120w, very very low for any kind of compressor!
      But perhaps then you must be talking about a pump, this makes sense, since there are tires nearby that occasionally needs pumping.
      ALTHOUGH, since USB C PD currently supports up to 240w, it would in fact be a very good candidate to replace any cigarette lighter pumps. Also a more sturdy connection since the lighter plugs are very keen on just falling out.
      Where you perhaps thinking that it’s difficult to fit an air hose through USB..? Because that is actually much simpler in a Lighter plug!

      Hopefully we can update the battery voltage at the same time as we reinvent a more better power connector for use in cars, it would just be a good idea. Could save 3/4 of the copper used today!

    4. It’s a really lousy connector that vibrates loose and then the plug ends up melted if you’re pulling much current from it. They really shouldn’t be used for more than a couple of amps, but they are usually fused at 10-15 amps.

      Luckily, they can be replaced with Anderson Powerpole connectors. They are smaller, so you get two plugs in the place of one cigarette lighter socket. If you upgrade the wiring, they can provide up to 45 amps.

      1. There is no blanket ban on smoking in cars in Canada. Some provinces restrict smoking if a person younger than 16 is in the car, and if a car is a workplace (e.g. a taxi) a ban on smoking in the workplace may apply. In every other circumstance it is perfectly legal to smoke in your car.

    1. Never. The car is where a kid gets the strongest dose of second hand smoke. Tobacco companies will pay their politicians good money to make sure there is always a next generation pre-conditioned to nicotine addiction.

  1. I don’t care that the cigarette/cigar lighter is no longer present in cars, but the socket still is. What I do find problematic is the absence of the ashtray. Because plenty of people still smoke and when done they throw the cigarette butts out of the window. Which is a bad thing in various ways. If modern cars still have an ashtray this problem could be eliminated. Also useful for smaller forms of trash, like old chewing gum or loose screws or buttons.

    It is pretty strange when you think of it, are trashcans in cars an option? And if so is there anyone who would buy it? And how big must it be? Sure we have cup holders… glove compartments, something in the side of the door, something at the back of the seat, a storage place next to the handbrake and a small place for cards or CD’s in the sunvisor. And let us not forget the trunk for suitcases and in some cars the small skibox that runs from back to front underneath the seats (but most people just carry a big ski-box top).
    Cars are made to store and transport anything in various places… but no decent location to store your trash. Resulting in some drivers make the world their trashcan.

    1. I’d bet that an ashtray will become an option on certain (more expensive) models. Tobacco smoking is on the way out, like it or not, so auto makers will look at “how to make money on this situation?” The socket will remain, as others have pointed out; it’s too useful for those little fridge units, coffee makers, inverters, and all the other devices used by travelers, campers, and tailgaters.

          1. Smoking is a good way to burn money. Worse than that, when health insurance pays for the resulting diseases, the smokers burn other people’s money. (Some health insurance companies are charging extra for smokers to offset that.)

    2. There are trash cans available in exchange for a rear seats floor space, similar to the ashtrays available in exchange for a cup holder.
      I find the cup holder ashtrays to be the better option than built-in, and I say this as a smoker.
      It of course should be up to the vehicle owner if smoking is allowed or not, and it isn’t unreasonable to put the onus on the smoking car owner to actively choose so.
      Personally, I take the lack of an ashtray as a sign to not smoke in that car at all. “our habit, our problem to deal with”
      No one should ever litter. In the rare case the owner doesn’t mind but doesn’t have an ashtray, they are cheaply available at any gas station. Worst case there is an empty space in my pack to store the butt for proper disposal later.

    3. I can assure you that back when cars all had ashtrays people still hung their cigarettes out the window and dumped ash and butts outside. They didn’t like the smell and mess inside their cars any more than the rest of us, so they externalized it. My ex-gf who smoked on an industrial scale said “I don’t want to have to clean all that gross stuff out of the ashtray” on a number of occasions.

      1. Still do. Quite often I see a butt flipped out the window of a moving vehicle.

        Need to check my ’24 Forester, but all the other car/trucks I have have the outlet. Truck has a lighter in the socket rather than a cap.

        Useful outlet.

    4. I know some car manufacturers offer a smokers package which has an ashtray. As a non-smoker, I don’t know which ones offer it and what it might cost, but it is available for some. As to the point about eliminating the butts being tossed out the window, no it wouldn’t. It might reduce it, but some people just don’t care enough and would still toss them. Some would probably just dump the whole ashtray out of the window while driving.

    5. I think you’re vastly overestimating behaviour of the average dirtbag. People don’t throw trash (burning or otherwise) out of their car window because they lack a proper receptacle, they throw it out because they’re done with it, and don’t want it anymore.

      You can buy trash containers for the inside of your car. You can buy ash trays. Hell, fast foot comes in its own trash bag. People still hurl it out the window when they’re done with it because they don’t care, and because there’s no social cost if they’re not being observed.

      Your thought process is laudable, but fails utterly when compared against the vast wealth of visible data everywhere you travel that people are just generally awful.

      1. Just drive down the highway and look at the garbage per mile. Or when collected, see all the garbage bags waiting for pickup toward end of summer. Always amazes me the pigs that are out there rolling down the road. I’d like to think the majority are garbage conscious and do the right thing, but there are enough that aren’t that make a mess for the rest of us to look at. Even in town, no excuse for the bottles, cans, cups, fast food bags laying in the streets….. Sad.

    6. You think people didn’t flick their butts out the window back when every car came with ashtrays?

      That’s funny. If that was really why they do it now then why don’t they just use an aftermarket ashtray or even just cut the top off a pop can and stick it in a drink holder?

      Most smokers suck.* That’s the root of your problem. It has nothing to do with automotive accessories. It’s the suckage of the people that like to shove stinky burning sticks of carcinogens in their face and suck on them.

      *-Thanks for not sucking to any of you that are thinking “hey! not all smokers, I don’t do that!”.

    7. No. It isn’t actually.

      The socket that delivers 12v in a modern car has been physically incompatible with a cigarette lighter for a LONG time.

      Manufacturers intentionally made ports that a lighter won’t fit in for liability reasons.

  2. I was going to say hopefully not while I’m alive because I still use mine. But then I remembered I’ve got no interest in a drive by wire car and will probably never own a new one again.

        1. I would too, if it could be slipped harmlessly like a torque converter, with comparable torque output, and had at least as much ratio range as my current ZF 8HP. Handling the same engine inputs for a similar lifetime goes without saying. There’s some with a hard first gear, but even that’s not the same.

      1. If you’re too drunk to plug in a USB, then you’re too drunk to drive. If someone else is driving, just ask them to plug it in. If you’re in a robot taxi, idk, you’re sol or something.

  3. Conveniently, with a length of copper pipe with a cap on the end, you can turn a few 18650 cells into a cigarette lighter socket. And there’s such a sheer variety of things that can run inside the 12V-automotive parameters, it’s much simpler to mash things together when you’ve got direct wires and loose standards instead of digital negotiation and 37 million incompatible standards.

    The sort of things you can do along those lines are: top your battery off if it’s low and needs a boost, run a powered cooler or other device but make sure it shuts off with plenty of charge left in the battery, or convert directly from the source of power (alternator, battery) to your desired one, for the least stages of conversion loss. (In ICE or non-car applications, since an EV wouldn’t have an alternator).

    Another nice thing about the connector is that while it’s large, that means it can either contain the electronics of an adapter you put into it while being flush on the outside, or it can support what you put in it physically, including those little gauges and things.

  4. Not just cars. As a child, our Coleman pop-up trailer had two of these on the ceiling of the hard-top part. As a kid I just used them to charge up the NiCad battery in my Discman. As an adult, I realize they were for the lights we never used and just left sitting in a cabinet

  5. I’ve mentioned this before but 12VDC is global more so than 110/60-220/50AC but these lighter sockets and plugs are poor but usable. Aren’t European cars on a smaller better socket standard? Someone in the ham community mentions Anderson Powerpoles are used at many field days worldwide. Still no global standard to connect 12V! Musk wants to have us go to 48V, just more inverters to fail where 2 wires and a fuse would do. Yet another proprietary connector to become a “standard”?

    I have a specimen of USB-C socket torn off a typical board with it’s fly-leg sized pad contacts and 4 tiny ground spikes extending through the board which is why I have little faith in that connector for anything.

    1. I think the problem with the Anderson connections is that they’re already fairly ubiquitous and completely without standards. We use them on our field equipment and our heavy machinery, and there is absolutely nothing to stop someone plugging our 24v start pack in to the 80v electric forklift, other than everyone who uses our bespoke equipment knowing not to do that.

      1. They technically have different colors that can’t cross plug. (Although black can plug any other color)
        Pure laziness if you don’t use purple/blue/orange on a forklift imho.

    1. They also put rear fog lights on their domestic market cars that don’t make it to north america. If they don’t think there’s a market for it, they’ll absolutely save 33 cents a unit on everything sold overseas.

  6. I once had a 72 Cadillac sedan deville. Every passenger had an ashtray and a lighter. Not joking. IIRC, it had one in each door, one in the dash center and one in the back of the bench seat.
    The car seated 6 comfortably.

  7. I have to say, it is one of the dumbest sockets i have witnessed. As said in the article, they are a little different sized and shit and the plugs have no grip so they can just wiggle out of the loose fitting socket as i have seen happen.

    Same goes for trailer connectors (European atleast, although similar design has been used in the states too, don’t know about the current type in use there today), they stop working after a while and you will never get them to work again except by buying a new set. They gather crap like there’s no tomorrow, are impossible to clean, hard to plug and unplug. Just a failed design in every way.

    I hate both with passion.

    1. Language changes with usage and time, and the majority seems to rule, right or wrong. And for those who believe that majority rule is always right, by virtue of being the majority view, it’s a cigarette lighter, since so many more people smoke cigarettes than cigars, although car manufactures have always correctly referred to it as a cigar lighter until they began referring to it as a power outlet. Technically you are correct, but it has to get lonely out on that limb. And even if it were only meant to light cigarettes, it would still be as large as it is, cz that’s all that the limit of fine motor skills while driving would permit; and no, one shouldn’t light cigarettes while driving but good luck on banning that. Unless lives hang in the balance, I really don’t argue too much anymore, as I have learned that I would rather be happy than be right (I don’t consider this an argument as much as I do a scholarly discussion; thank you for indulging me).

  8. I say leave it. Has many uses and for me as a person that drives all over florida as part of my job I need a cig port in the van. I can power a lot of things and keep tools charged as I’m driving to the next job.

  9. replace them with USB 4volts and some sort of 12volt outlet, naw nevermind just continue with the cigarette lighter port without the cigarette lighter since there already adapters to fit it, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it

    1. There’s such a thing as fit and finish. When I needed to add a switch to a previous car, I bought an OEM switch panel with more spots so that I didn’t just have a hole in the dash with a random switch inside it.

  10. I had a LandRover from the 70’s, I cant remember if it had a cigarette lighter, but it had a pair of Banana connector jacks in the dashboard for the work light.
    Of course they were not standard size, they were brittish.
    The entire car had 4 fuses, not automotive fuses, but glass fuses, and they were not of standard size either.

  11. I have a tire inflator that I keep in the car, and it only has a micro-USB socket on it. The catch is that it has a reasonably large battery in it, so that it’s actually cordless when in use. I just keep it charged up from the 3-way USB charger that’s always plugged into the lighter socket. It can also be used as a battery bank.

  12. I ordered two cigarette lighter ports yesterday, as the one in my car has fried and I could use a second one. I bought an air compressor a while ago, plugged it in, and the fuse blew. The repair shop replaced it for me as I wasn’t able to reach it. They must have put a bigger one in, because I tried it again and the entire thing stopped working, even after replacing the fuse again. The wires now make contact so they melted. I’ll fix the original one day as well. Taking the console apart is a bit of a hassle though.

    So yeah, they are useful. It’s DC to DC which is nice. And if I don’t crash it or anything, I hope this is the last car I’ll ever buy. It’s a Toyota so that should be possible. If I do crash, I’ll buy an even older car.

    1. When I married, my wife had 2 cigarette lighter powered air compressors.
      Later, when I tried to use them, they didn’t work. The piston rings were rusted to the pistons.

  13. The lighter port exists in cars in quantity. It’s perfect for the uses it’s currently given with the bazillion devices that currently use it. Any other port, like USB-C, has obvious, serious issues. So, keep it and continue to add $5 to the cost of a new car which costs tens of thousands of dollars.

  14. I put cigarette lighter sockets on my motorcycles… They are more useful than the proverbial ashtray. USB as well.

    If HAD ever realises there’s more to the world than the USA, they’d know Europe solved this in the 50’s. It’s called the BMW power accessory jack (even though BMW didn’t invent it), it’s even an ISO standard. And yes, BMW bikes have it.

  15. One Summer I got a job at Rochester Products running a Bodine (Machine) making lighter sockets. That was before GM sold the department and no longer made their lighters in the U.S. And before they eliminated lighters from their cars. And well before they stopped making cars. Well they haven’t stopped making all their cars but they make many less car models than they used too.

    I predict the cars will disappear before the sockets. We’ll still have SUVs and Pickup Trucks but they’ll all be electric and maybe then we’ll be using Anderson PowerPole Connectors.

    1. Yup, I have a cluster of them hanging under my dash. I was an early adopter cz I found them in a non-ham publication years before they became known in the ham community, back when ARES/RACES was still standardized on the Molex connector. in fact, I introduced them to my local area by talking them up, finding a distributor and convincing my local dealer to stock them; now, thankfully they are everywhere.

  16. I’m pretty sure the modern cigar lighter goes back before 1956; I was born in 1946 and seem to recall them before 1956, and IIRC my ’49 Dodge and ’51 Buick had, them, pretty sure my dad’s ’50 Pontiac had one. I know that my ’55 Chevy did. I will research that.

  17. The problem with no standard 12V connectors is worse on boats / marine. The connectors should be waterproof or at least water resistant. I tried using the smaller Andersons, and also XT60s. At least XT60s are gold plated, small and reliable. They do require soldering and heat-shrink and are no easy bulkhead mounting.
    So I mostly use flimsy and unreliable cigarette sockets. Blue Sea Systems makes the least terrible ones. Sad.

  18. How long?
    -15ish years.

    Modern cars have a 12v socket.
    That 12v socket is physically incompatible with the old style cigarette lighter plugs. This was intentional. It is one less thing an auto manufacturer can be held liable for.

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