Are we kidding ourselves about headlights?

Car lighting tech is dangerously halfway to where it should be.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
2 min read

I received an interesting email from CNET reader Sam about automatic headlights - or the lack thereof:

I always wonder why automatic headlights - not just daytime running lights - that turn on at dusk aren't a standard "safety" feature. I've come up on a dark highway to a black car with no tail lights on due to the fact they see light from their day time running lights on and the dash all lit up that they don't realize they're completely dark from the back.  

Many cars today have automatic headlights that will switch on when conditions are dim or dark, but they are not required to have them. And even when they do, you typically need to switch the headlights to the Automatic position rather than that being default.

Similarly, U.S. cars are not required to have daytime running lights or DRLs, those half-bright front lights that are on whenever the car is running. They seek to make the car more visible to others, not illuminate the road ahead. Problem is, they are often bright enough to convince the inattentive (or drunk) driver that their headlights are on.


A typical array of front lights on a modern car, in this case a 2014 Impala.

General Motors

General Motors really wanted DRLs to be required on U.S. cars but lost that fight with U.S. regulators in 2009, partly because a lot of public opinion piled up against DRLs. Apparently a lot of folks confused them for headlights, turn signals, or a trampling of the American way of life. The feds backed down from requiring them and it didn't help that their main study of DRL effectiveness found a small and statistically insignificant reduction in collisions with DRLs.

It seems odd to me that, in an age when vehicles have automatic rear cameras, parking sensors, traction control and, soon, automatic braking, they still won't have universal automatic DRLs, headlights and wipers. Only some U.S. states have laws requiring you turn on your headlights in conditions that call for your wipers; Brush up om your state's headlight laws here

Interestingly, Japan's government research came to a different conclusion than that in the U.S. and Japan will require automatic headlights on all new cars sold from April 2020 onward