Automakers Ready to Rock When New NHTSA Headlight Rules Arrive

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
automakers ready to rock when new nhtsa headlight rules arrive

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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  • Wheatridger Wheatridger on Oct 30, 2018

    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.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Oct 31, 2018

    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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