By on October 29, 2018

by Steve Johnson car headlights

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced earlier this month that it was willing to considering changing the rules that govern automobile headlights. Now in a comment period before its official review, the proposal would permit automakers to install and enable adaptive driving beam headlights on new cars sold in the United States. While some automakers are preparing themselves for the change, most have been ready for ages.

One one hand, this proposed change should help lousy drivers from burning out your retinas on a lonesome country road. But, by the same token, you may no longer have the delicious opportunity to blast them with the brights once they’re within a few feet of your car to let them know to lower those damned high beams.

Just kidding, that would be illegal. Federal mandates require all drivers to dim their headlights when approaching within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle or when approaching a vehicle less than 300 feet ahead. Of course, nobody we know has ever witnessed this law being actively enforced — even though it’s probably as dangerous as moderate speeding infractions. Regardless, it’ll gradually become a non-issue if the rules change. 

For years, automakers have asked the NHTSA to modify headlight regulations to include an allowance for the adaptive illumination that’s already popular in other parts of the world. While safety is the official concern, the advanced systems also give manufacturers an opportunity to upsell additional features that would garner dealerships added dough when and if they need to be worked on.

Unlike “auto dimming” headlights, most adaptive lamps are dependent upon an array of bulbs directed at various parts of the roadway. Some systems switch bulbs on and off, while others actively divert or obscure the light mechanically. Typically connected to a front-facing camera that influences where and when a beam is emitted, these systems started cropping up on luxury models regularly in Europe a few years ago. But Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108, which stipulates where headlamps are located and how they operate, has kept them out of the U.S.

“In our opinion, [allowing adaptive headlights] would make a really big difference.” Matthew Brumbelow, a senior research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), told Automotive News. “The main balancing act with headlights in general is achieving good visibility for your vehicle without glaring everyone else on the road. Typically, that’s done with low and high beams, and for the most part, that’s been left to people to decide which is appropriate.”

The IIHS has recently begun including headlight evaluations with overall vehicle safety, deeming many vehicles to have inadequate units. Unlike its specious takedown of marijuana, the automotive illumination issue seems to mostly altruistic. However, its overall concern with high beams doesn’t mesh perfectly with ours. We’re of the mind that brighter, modern-day headlamps simply aren’t being properly calibrated and high beams are being over-utilized by absentminded motorists, resulting in mass roadway blindings. But Brumbelow  claims most people actually underuse their brights. In a study of high-beam use, IIHS said that 80 percent of drivers fail to turn on their high beams when they should.

Automakers are ready to roll out new products immediately, though you’ll likely see them isolated to premium nameplates or as optional extras for the first few years. Audi already has a system on the A8 that can be instantly activated via a software update. It’s just waiting on the NHTSA to give it a pass, which is likely. The agency has spent several years researching the technology, soliciting automakers for data, and running some tests of its own.

[Image: Steve Johnson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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24 Comments on “Automakers Ready to Rock When New NHTSA Headlight Rules Arrive...”

  • avatar

    I suspect a “flash to pass” capability will still exist on these headlights so blind away.

  • avatar

    Strategically placed LED light bars and a bank of auxiliary switches should restore our ability to selectively blind any and all who inflict narcissistic injury.

    Heaven forfend one should inadvertently scrape a headlight lens or seek to replace a bumper cover containing multiple lighting and camera housings. Scraping a parking block will now require a 4-hour recalibration of your forward lighting array.

    Vehicles for which such a system would be the most useful, i.e. commercial trucks, vans, Jeeps, and 4×4 pickups due to over height, load variation, and high degrees of customization, will be the ones least likely to adopt said system.

  • avatar

    This would be a welcome improvement. NHTSA has required inferior lights to the European codes for more than 50 years. In reality, if the USA scrapped all of the FMVSS & the US emission rules and adopted the European rules for everything, cars would be safer and more European brands would be available here without obscene homologation expenses that keep many out of our market.

    • 0 avatar


      Right on! But then again, 20,000 bureau crats would lose their $125,000 zero stress/ near zero deliverables jobs.

      So – will NEVER happen.

      Common sense never makes sense to the bureaucracy.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes sure, Europe is stuck in the stone age for crash test standards and emissions (as the VW scandal proved). I am an European expat in the US and I don’t miss the European pollution level in cities ( twice as high as US cities). I also like the fact that my US spec car was subject to roof crush standards, unlike Europe. No mandatory tire pressure monitor in Europe either. The only “better” EU standard is just about headlights.

      • 0 avatar


        Oh, you forgot about Los Angeles and seven other cities in California being the most polluted in the US according to the 2018 report prepared by American Lung Association.

        You obviously ignored the chequered history of epic failures on NHTSA’s proposals and standards. Several of them had been rescinded because they were totally stupid to start with.

        The air bag regulations were extensively revised for 1992 after more than 200 people were killed and much more injuried (mildly to severely) by the killer air bags.

        The motorised seat belts or door-bolted shoulder seat belts (banned in Canada) were despised by many people but allowed by NHTSA because they were cheaper for the manufacturers.

        The battle ram bumper standards were watered down to 2.5-mph in 1983.

        The seat belt starter interlock alarm introduced in 1973 was shot down by the angry public and politicians.

        The laughable 85-mph speedometer regulation was struck off by President Reagan.

        The headlamp choice was limited to four (two shapes and two sizes) until 1983 when NHTSA finally allowed the composite headlamps with removable bulbs: however, it didn’t mandate the anti-UV coating to prevent the yellowing of polycarbonate headlamps.

        At first, NHTSA didn’t allow halogen bulb because the former director, Joan Claybrook, thought the improved headlamps would compel people to drive faster. Yes, I am not kidding!

        NHTSA didn’t give a hoot about the external rear view mirrors that didn’t bend or fold, stabbing people in their thighs if they’re not careful or breaking off the door and dangling on its adjustment cables.

        What about the saddle fuel tanks on the pick-up trucks that didn’t have braces, protecting them in the event of side collision? The media was having a field day at that.

        Ah, 20/20 news show in 1986 had demonstrated a dangerous effect of lap seat belts fitted to many domestic cars. Two guys who sat in the rear seat and used the lap seat belts became paralysed in the frontal collision because the lap seat belts failed to prevent the upper body colliding against the rear of front seats. After this documentary was aired, the domestic manufacturers rushed to make the three-point lap-shoulder seat belts standard fitment for the rear seats even though NHTSA didn’t require them.

        NHTSA regulations allowed the “false seat belt latching” (illegal in Europe) for many years. Look up the key words: RCF-65 and RCF-67/Type I.

        Oh, if NHTSA cares so much about the safety of American populace, it should have mandated taillamps with separate amber turn signal indicators, better headlamps that don’t glare to start with, side turn signal repeaters, foldable external rear view mirrors, proper seat belt locking anchors, and so forth.

        Um, what else? Ah, yeah, that notorious GM iginition switch scandal! It exposed the failure of NHTSA recall program…necessiating the reform enacted by the Congress.

        NHTSA is driven by the opportunistic bureaucrats and powerful lobbying groups that have strong interest in making vehicles as cheap as possible. ECE is driven by the engineers who know what they are doing.

    • 0 avatar

      One could say the NHTSA has seen the light!!

      I think Mercedes has the brake lights that are tied to the brake force applied. That is, the harder you brake, the faster the brake lights flash. But the NHTSA thus far has opposed this system, making me rely on smoking tires to determine the car in front of me was about to hit something. <– true story, and fortunately it happened during the day. The car in front stopped in time, avoiding a car stopped and straddling the shoulder. I stopped in time, and the car behind me was able to switch lanes.

      • 0 avatar

        My ’11 BMW has brake lights that reflect braking intensity. Normal braking lights up a pair, hard braking an additional pair. Not that anyone will have a clue what that means here. My GTI can have this enabled in software, including the flashing under really hard braking. This sort of thing is pretty across the board in European cars. Also, hazard lights automatically going on under hard braking is pretty common.

        It’s about time the US is getting out of the stone age on this stuff.

    • 0 avatar

      Amen, bro!

      NHTSA did consider the taillamps with separate amber turn signal indicators and headlamps with replaceable bulbs and lenses in 1969, but it was quietly tabled away forever. Perhaps due to the intense pressure from the manufacturers…

  • avatar
    George B

    Even under current rules, there’s a lot of room for improvement in low beam performance. Maybe adaptive headlights would allow me to use high beams more frequently, but what I need most of the time are low beam headlights that are as bright as possible that illuminate the sides of the road well.

    Poor headlight performance caused me lots of difficulty driving on Interstate 17 at night several years ago. Too much traffic to use high beams and the low beams failed to illuminate the road in the many turns. I ended up following a truck, using his lights to let me see what was happening up ahead.

  • avatar


    1 : to make dim or lusterless
    dimmed their hopes of an early settlement
    2 : to reduce the light from
    dim the headlights


    3 : a word unknown to lifted Tacoma drivers

  • avatar

    “We’re of the mind that brighter, modern-day headlamps simply aren’t being properly calibrated, resulting in mass roadway blindings. But Brumbelow claims most people actually underuse their high beams. In a study of high-beam use, IIHS said that 80 percent of drivers fail to turn on their high beams when they should.”

    Entirely possible for both of those statements to be true.

  • avatar

    All I know is between OEM LEDs and cheap aftermarket HIDs, lightbars and the fact that 85% of vehicles are now SUV/trucks with headlights right at my eye-level, I can’t see a damn thing in all that glare. Even the LED streetlights are a factor, I now drive at night with sunvisors down.

    • 0 avatar

      From my last commute experience, one does not need a truck to blind everyone (though these have earned notoriety). I sort of regret not letting a moron in mitsu lancer (?) pass me. His “fashionable” light bar mounted right below the bumper was burning my retina for the last mile of my trip. And it wasn’t even dark yet. OTOH, there’s bunch of suckers that can’t even replace the bulb and will blind traffic with OEM headlight.
      BTW, I can only imagine replacement costs of these fancy new lights.

  • avatar

    Freedom to use adaptive designs raises the possibility that manufacturers will engineer headlights that do a good job of illuminating the road ahead. Too many vehicles, including some from manufacturers of high performance models, have miserable headlights.

  • avatar

    If NHTSA wants to do something constructive, how about a fix for headlights on older cars that get hazy and yellowed. There should be a way to replace the outer plastic lens instead of the entire light assembly. People with 10 year old cars can’t afford to spend $500 or more to replace these. So they drive around barely able to see, or they run the high beams all the time. I can see better with my glass sealed beams on my 69 Mustang.

    • 0 avatar

      They just invented something for that: Sandpaper

      You can start with 500 grit, “wet sand” increasing 2 or 300 grit “steps”, all the way to 2000 grit or higher, no need for clear “rattle-can”.

      But I’m lazy so I’ll just do 800 grit and then “clear”. Looks great with just a few minutes spent on each side, mostly from masking around the lights, with under $10 spent

      Tons of Youtube vids on how-to’s, and kits available everywhere, so there’s no excuse.

    • 0 avatar

      You should thank Ford and NHTSA for that.

      NHTSA *did* propose that the polycarbonate lens be coated with UV protection as to prevent yellowing. Ford screamed NO because it would add $2 per vehicle. And Ford would earn more money through OEM replacement when people are angry about yellowing lens.

      So NHTSA rescinded its UV protection proposal. Thanks a lot, Ford!

  • avatar
    Kosher Polack

    […the delicious opportunity to blast them with the brights once they’re within a few feet of your car to let them know to lower those damned high beams.]

    Yeah, I WISH

    It took me a few years, but I’ve come to accept that nobody driving around with their high beams on would understand, or possibly even notice such a “lesson.”

  • avatar

    Great! Hopefully, nighttime deaths and injuries will be reduced for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Why did this take so long? How did they allow Toyota and Hyundai to introduce brake lights like flicker first? Looks like the driver started to stop for something and then decided to go. Great idea for causing more rear end crashes.

  • avatar

    Our Tiguan’s adaptive headlights are marvelous! Out on the dark, open road, they form a bright cone of light, giving me good recognition of objects 200 feet away. When I spotted a deer atop a 30-ft embankment to my left, I kew that I wouldn’t have seen it in any other car I’ve owned.

    On curves, the lights pivot towards the apex, away from oncoming traffic and towards that cyclist on the shoulder. And coming back home, a separate cornering light comes on to illuminate my dark driveway.

    VW’s has limited availability of adaptive lighting since my 2013, and my ’80’s SAAB had cornering lights. I’m ready to see this tech required. out here, that slow traffic ahead of your lights is probably a deep, maybe an elk, or please-God-don’t-let-it-be a moose, jet-black and enormous.

  • avatar

    Mercedes has a fully adaptive system, and the 2019 system is beam forming. I wonder if those features will be activated in the US cars, or alternately, if they can be programmed Euro market…

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