By on February 16, 2022

On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it had finalized a rule permitting automakers to install adaptive driving beam headlights on modern vehicles. Despite having pioneered automatic headlamps in the 1950s, the United States has been hesitant to implement automatic leveling and directional beams. In fact, imported vehicles equipped with adaptive headlights have been modified to adhere to regional safety laws for decades.

But the implementation of light-emitting diodes, high-intensity discharge lamps, and even upgrades to tungsten-halogen bulbs has made forward illumination substantially brighter. If you’ve been driving a while, you’ve probably noticed increased glare from oncoming vehicles (especially if you’re in an automobile that’s situated closer to the pavement). Directional beams are supposed to help alleviate the problem and have been getting more attention from U.S. safety regulators. However, that’s only part of the reason why the NHTSA suddenly feels better about approving them. 

Automakers have long been annoyed by the regulatory disparities in the United States. Toyota Motor North America even launched a petition to get the government to start allowing adaptive headlamps back in 2013 and the NHTSA makes clear mention of it being a relevant factor in its report. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), a lobbying group that represents most global automakers, likewise urged the agency to expedite a final rule approving the technology in U.S. products last October.

“[The AAI] has supported NHTSA’s efforts on the adaptive driving beam rule-making and has actively participated in the rule-making process through public comment,” John Bozzella, CEO of the alliance stated. “Research shows the safety benefits of this technology, which can help provide enhanced down-road visibility without increasing glare to oncoming vehicles.”

While there has been talk about revising federal safety standards for years, not much real change has taken place. During the Trump administration, the Department of Transportation suggested a need to revise rules to cater to modern cars and inform the development of autonomous vehicles. But legislators lacked knowledge on the latter issue and automakers had overhyped the technology — resulting in the U.S. retaining the older standards while allowing AVs to exist on the fringes.

Meanwhile, adaptive headlamps are comparatively straightforward and have been around long enough on other markets for regulators to make more informed decisions. But we cannot discount the external pressure from businesses. Automakers don’t want to continue having to swap out headlight assemblies between markets and insurers are becoming interested in working headlight efficacy into premiums. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) even made forward illumination one of its biggest priorities several years ago, embracing newer technologies not used in the U.S. while cautioning against the dangers of oncoming glare.

Though the lynchpin is Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 (pertaining to automotive lighting), which has to be changed before directional beams would be legally permissible.

Provisions contained in the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed by Congress in 2021, require numerous changes to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Among them was an inclusion to adopt new headlight standards using requirements set by SAE International. Interestingly, the vote on IIJA came roughly a month after Alliance for Automotive Innovation started pressuring the United States to tweak its federal safety standards. Although the NHTSA originally published a notice that it wanted to update the rules way back in 2018.

Despite your author typically finding regulatory actions overbearing and counterproductive, changing a rule that effectively bans modern headlight systems isn’t going to create many sleepless nights. The only real downside to adaptive beams is that they’ll be harder for do-it-yourself repairs and cost substantially more. It also means more sensors going into newer automobiles so that the car knows where to direct the lights. But if you’re worried about that kind of stuff, your concerns might be better directed at manufacturers’ latest data-harvesting and driver-monitoring protocols.

Steven Cliff, the NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said the agency is making the change for headlights to improve safety and protect vulnerable road users, specifically pedestrians. Though it seems like the updated rules would benefit other motorists with more regularity by eliminating glare.

“NHTSA prioritizes the safety of everyone on our nation’s roads, whether they are inside or outside a vehicle. New technologies can help advance that mission,” Cliff said in a statement. “NHTSA is issuing this final rule to help improve safety and protect vulnerable road users.”

While this officially confirms that the U.S. will eventually allow adaptive headlamps, the surrounding regulations have to be finalized. We won’t actually know what that’ll entail for another two years. The law only directs the agency to issue a finalized rule within two years amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 and the clock started ticking this month.

[Image: Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock]

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31 Comments on “Adaptive Headlights Becoming Legal in United States...”

  • avatar

    International automobile companies and anyone engaged in global trade complain about differences in standards across various borders. I’ve read some articles where the authors view them and an indirect tariff on trade.

    Companies engaged in global trade do take advantage of these rules when it benefits them. They will de-content and engineer out safety features as opposed to selling a safer product if in makes them an extra 99 cents.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, some of those components can be incredibly expensive to engineer. So if there’s one way to change the programming and make one part satisfy both–say–NA and EU regulations, that’s what they’ll do. Lighting is especially expensive.

      For instance, my X5 has the laser headlights, or whatever they’re called, and come with all the hardware for full adaptive beams that can bend around other cars and highlight road signage…which is the exact subject of the article. But they’ve been de-coded, so that that functionality doesn’t operate on NA-market cars. According to the forum, you can add this functionality back with the BMW coding software, but I haven’t done so.

      • 0 avatar

        If you do turn on the functionality, it would be interesting to hear your take on the difference (if any) driving on your normal routes.

        • 0 avatar

          Seconded. Kyree, if you wanted to do a Kickstarter or similar to fund the project, I’d be willing to throw $5 at it.

          Canadian, of course; I’m not rich.

        • 0 avatar

          I turned it on in my BMW, and I assure you, the difference is very impressive. I don’t want to buy another car that doesn’t come with it (or have the ability for me to enable it).

          I’m hoping that this change in regulations in the US will be copied by Canadian regulators. Our current headlight regulations match the old American ones, as I understand it.

    • 0 avatar

      “I’ve read some articles where the authors view them and an indirect tariff on trade.”

      I’ve heard them referred to as “non-tariff [trade] barriers” (NTBs).

      All of the quotes are because it’s someone else’s professional jargon, not mine.

  • avatar

    does anyone have retrofit adaptive headlights in the works for older vehicles? I would be excited to get decent headlights for my fleet that don’t blind other motorist.

  • avatar

    The regulators have focused far too much on the minutiae of headlight design and not enough on the very basic measurement of headlight height. The best anti-glare design in the world is no help when headlights are approaching 60″ off the ground, which is the case for many stock pickups today (and essentially all lifted ones).

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, I am guessing that pickups will be the last vehicles to get these as I am pretty sure blinding oncoming traffic is a selling point. Or they will adapt to be high all the time. I think the headlights on most modern pickups are placed higher that most semis. Ridiculous design made to appeal to a certain customer, will only get more obnoxious as time goes on.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve owned four pickup trucks. The requirement for visual machismo undermines their functionality in many ways.

      The enormously long hood, for instance, is almost all downside (functionally speaking) compared to roughly the same engine housed a bit differently in a full-sized van.

      Bed rails that are too high to reach over? They look awesome, but make it harder to load and unload cargo.

      Same thing with headlights and bumpers — they’d work better and be safer overall if they were at the same height as everyone else’s, but they’re not.

      A function-over-form pickup truck would look pretty much like a chassis van. But, alas, the chassis vans cost about the same as a fully loaded full-sized pickup truck, but lack the creature-comforts that a non-commercial user expects at that price. So, the pickup trucks we have — like my GMC Sierra — continue to sell. Even to me.

      • 0 avatar

        @Luke, I’ve often thought a good functional pickup would be something like an Isuzu cabover with a box bed. Long hoods on a pickup make no sense, especially for a commercial vehicle where bottom line matters more than appearance or machismo. The Nissan NV cargo vans always seemed particularly stupid to me.

        • 0 avatar

          I haven’t used a tape measure, but I don’t think hoods are longer than they used to be. Just lift the hood on most any modern pickup, and you’ll see part of the engine tucked under the cowl, which makes them harder to repair, even changing spark plugs. The F-150s and F-Super Dutys have for some time required lifting the cab off of the frame to get to the valvegear and other things. If hoods were really that long, why would they need to tuck part of the engines under the cowl?

          Thankfully, the top side of the V6 in my 2013 Tacoma is completely accessible from the hood.

      • 0 avatar

        I recently priced out a Ram Promaster Crew and a reasonable amount of comfort features (equivalent to a Ram 1500 Big Horn, such as heated cloth seats, a radio, tow package, etc) and the Promaster is noticeably more expensive than a comparable Ram pickup. And in the van you can only get front wheel drive, can’t have a 2nd row driver side door (why? it’s an option on the cargo but not on crew variants?), and can’t tow as much. On the plus side, the van has a bigger, lower, and covered “bed” but you can’t access the “bed” from the sides like you could on a truck.

        It’s the same with a Ford Transit crew van. You’d spend less by getting a comparable F150.

      • 0 avatar

        Yup, purely on the utility basis, something like a Daihatsu GranMax Pickup/Toyota TownAce Truck makes better sense. A 13ft semi-cabover truck with an 8ft bed and fold down bed panels for an easy loading.

        Difficult to make a Raptor or a Harley-Davidson edition, though, so no chance of ever making it over here.

        An acquaintance that has been long looking for a small pickup recently ended up with a RAM ProMaster City cargo van. Since he doesn’t need a rear seat, it’s smaller than the new Ford Maverick with a bigger cargo capacity. Not the best choice for hauling mulch, but works great for everything else apparently.

    • 0 avatar

      Pickups would be an ideal candidate for self leveling headlights. My truck’s headlights were set at the factory with an empty box. I put some weight in in and the lights aim higher.

      • 0 avatar

        My minivan used to point the headlights at the sky whenever I was carrying anything significant. I’d like to see self-leveling headlights on those, too.

        It’s easy to hit the 1500lb cargo capacity of a minivan with 7 portly relatives.

  • avatar

    The NHTSA was too busy mandating electric cars make noise and mandating backup cameras to be worried about people being able to see at night.

    Nice to see they finally got around to it

  • avatar

    And yet cornering lamps and side turn signal repeaters are not on the table….or rarely found.

  • avatar

    I have automatic high beams but still get flashed all the time when they are on normal setting. It seems like a simple feature to add a “low” setting (or use half the LED’s or however it works) when it detects oncoming traffic.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m also curious to understand how they work when behind a vehicle (especially a tall vehicle that’s behind a short vehicle). I’m concerned that the functionality might allow for even brighter headlights, which would make it even worse when they aren’t able to correct properly.

  • avatar

    “When I say lapdog you say NHTSA!”



  • avatar

    Well, it’s about time. Well, lots of time it seems – *two years* to implement a design feature that’s already in showrooms in most of the world?

    The technology being contemplated here is LED matrix headlamps which effectively change the light beam shape by turning on or off individual LED elements in the lamp cluster to maximize distance/width/brightness for the driver whilst minimizing glare to oncoming drivers using data from sensors and GPS data, something made possible by the headlamps having about 25 individually-aimed LEDS that can each be turned on or off to change light beam spread and reach, as opposed to old incandescent low and high beams which had at most two bulbs and reflectors. Newer headlamps substituted HID/xenon or LED bulbs for incandescents (including halogens) but in the U.S. were still restricted to two bulbs and a high/low beam setup rather than all the shades in between allowed by LED matrix lamps. So my question is, will the new regulations allow existing international headlamps to also be legal in the U.S., or will NHTSA still insist on separate regulations from the rest of the world requiring automakers to design two separate headlamps for every car, often leaving US-market cars with inferior lighting?

  • avatar

    So tired of being blinded while driving at night.

    Getting older only makes it more annoying.

    Go away, clouds!!!

  • avatar

    Approving adaptive headlights will be a good thing. The lethargy in revising standards reminds me of DOT’s and NHTSA’s sticking with sealed beam headlamps long after they became obsolete.

    I don’t worry so much about headlights engineered and installed by the OEMs (although they’re not all well-engineered), but the explosion of aftermarket LED headlights with unshielded LEDs that blind oncoming drivers (either by negligence or by design), or display inappropriate colors to oncoming drivers (like red). I’m pretty sure nothing like that is DOT-approved or marked.

    It’s not a regulatory thing, but I notice more drivers lately driving with their high beams on all the time, especially in sedans.

  • avatar

    I try to avoid slipping on my Miata for a night drive. Literally everyone’s approaching headlights are at head level, and LED’s are like retinal scans.

    Safest thing to do is get yellow-tinted glasses. They really do cut the glare.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    Thank you Toyota for, uh, driving this change.

  • avatar

    One simple change that would yield tremendous benefits going forward is to not allow headlights to use plastic that yellows or otherwise deteriorates over time. It doesn’t just make lights dimmer, it also increases glare for other drivers. The same is true of having dirty headlights. I know some places require washers on headlights and it seems like having the lights cleaned when the windshield washers are activated would only be sensible. On the other hand, every additional thing that is mandated makes cars more expensive and harder to maintain. The plastic thing should definitely happen though. Why hasn’t it?

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    I’m really confused. My 2018 Mazda 6 has adaptive headlights that auto leveland aims around turns.

    • 0 avatar

      These systems go well beyond that. They have a camera tracking oncoming cars, and will swivel or dim individual headlights to avoid blinding them, while otherwise giving you as much light as possible. For instance, while an oncoming car is passing, your right high-beam might be on full power and while your left headlight is dimmed. When the oncoming cars are a bit further away, both headlights might be on high-beam, but swivelled or with some LED components off so that there’s no light actually shining directly at the spot where the oncoming car is. It’s really amazing to watch it in action as you drive.

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