The infrastructure bill passed recently by Congress and signed into law by President Biden includes a section that amends Section 108 of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard “to allow for the use on vehicles of adaptive driving beam headlamp systems.” Previously, the standard required all motor vehicles sold in the United States to have headlights with separate and distinct high beam and low beam settings. The infrastructure bill directs the changes to Section 108 take effect within 2 years and to make testing of the headlights mandatory.
What’s the big deal? Adaptive headlights do exactly what their name implies — they adapt to different driving situations to always put the maximum available light on the road in front of the driver without blinding oncoming traffic or glaring in the rear view mirror of the car in front. In effect, they leverage the technology that makes adaptive cruise control possible to adjust the headlight beam as needed.
But they can do so much more. Adaptive headlights can illuminate the left lane when passing or the right lane when pulling back in after completing a pass. They can be programmed to light up obstructions in the road ahead or pedestrians on the side of the road. In the future, they could project warning symbols into a driver’s line of vision if there is ice or slick pavement ahead. For a quick tutorial, check out this video from Audi.
Adaptive Headlights by Audi
It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s new technology that uses the latest sensors to program the headlights so they only illuminate the most important parts of the road ahead. In effect, a car’s high beams would always be on but where they cast their light would vary according to circumstances. The folks at CNET Road Show say, “Sure, automatic high beams are a thing, but adaptive headlights take things 10 steps further.”
The Technology is Live in Europe
Adaptive headlights have been available on some cars sold in Europe for a few years now, but the existing federal lighting code prohibited their use in the US. Older readers may remember that Europe allowed reflector headlamps with replaceable bulbs for years before America abandoned the trusty old sealed beam headlights. They were cheap, but did a pretty poor job of lighting up the road ahead. They also came in only two styles — round or square — which put a crimp in the styling plans of many automotive designers.
Many drivers in the 50s and 60s would add auxiliary driving lights like the famous Lucas Flame Throwers to the front bumper of their car to offset the weak performance of the factory units. [Some did this because they thought it made their ’64 Chevelle look cool. I’m embarrassed to say I was one of them.]
The good news is, this technology could possibly be activated on existing automobiles after the new regulation goes into effect, thanks to the magic of over-the-air updates. Expect to hear more about this in the days and months ahead.
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