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Smart Headlights Are Around the Corner, to the Relief of That Driver You're Blinding

Whether newly legal adaptive headlights will be widespread or just for luxury cars remains a question.

This story is part of Plugged In, CNET's hub for all things EV and the future of electrified mobility. From vehicle reviews to helpful hints and the latest industry news, we've got you covered.

Headlights on new US cars may soon leap forward thanks to a little-noticed regulation that took effect in February, allowing cars on American roads to use lights that intelligently adapt their beam brightness and shape in ways that will utterly change our expectations of headlights. It's a change the insurance companies, safety advocates and I have been eagerly awaiting.

No, really, they're smart

Until these new regulations were opened up, cars sold in the US had to be on either low beam or high, never both or a mix of the two. Nothing smart about that. And while the term "smart" is thrown around much too loosely in tech circles (like "smart home" technology that is really just connected home technology), the coming smart headlights will warrant the label.

Formally known as adaptive beam headlights, they rely on one or more cameras to assess the road and position of oncoming cars, adjusting headlight brightness and beam shape, or "cutoff," to avoid blinding oncoming drivers while still lighting the rest of the road. All of this is constantly adjusted in real time as the road and the position of other cars change. Some smart headlights will also detect pedestrians or animals along the side of the road and highlight them. 

All of this is a far cry from today's "smart" headlights that merely automate switching from high to low beam, a trick cars have been doing with variable success since 1955.

Autronic-Eye headlight ad

Cars that automatically dip their high beams are nothing new; adaptive beam headlights will go far beyond that.

General Motors

The technology already exists

Adaptive beam headlights will be less of a technological lift than they seem because they're already on the market, just not here. In recent years Audi and BMW were among the first to taunt us with adaptive beam headlights we couldn't get in the US, with Mercedes, Lexus, Porsche and Cadillac selling similar tech in Europe and Asia. A small percentage of cars on US roads may have smart headlights that are disabled in software, perhaps an easy unlock away. Mercedes Adaptive Highbeam Assist is an example of just such an extra-cost software upgrade.

Adaptive headlights are legal in nearby Canada, where Transport Canada has gone so far as to mount an explainer campaign to evangelize their value to drivers. In many ways, the US has remained stubbornly behind the world in this aspect of car tech, and I've not been able to ever get a good answer as to why.

Audi Advanced Headlights

Audi's Digital Matrix LED headlights will soon be freed from their regulatory chains in the US.

Audi/Craig Cole/Roadshow

How soon and how broadly?

Just because this safety breakthrough is now legal in the US doesn't mean it will be evenly distributed. Ideally, adaptive beam headlights would proliferate the way automatic emergency braking has in recent years, but I fear that smart headlights will exist in the realm of massage seats and special upholstery. They don't inexpensively leverage existing hardware with new software, but require sophisticated new lamp assemblies that Audi describes as having a million digital micromirrors moving at 5KHz. Doesn't sound cheap to me. I've heard nothing yet about any potential requirement that US cars have smart headlights the way backup cameras have been mandatory on new cars since 2018.

Consumer demand trumps all in the showroom so it will be interesting to see how many car buyers walk in demanding smart beam technology, since it's something you may not even know is on new cars around you when it's working well.  

This troubles me, since automotive headlights have a distributed safety effect, aiding both the occupants as well as those around the car. Airbags only benefit a car's occupants yet have been mandated for over 20 years. I'd like to see adaptive smart headlights be similarly required but I'm not holding my breath for an auto industry where careers are made by saving a dollar on a part.

Changing light, changing behaviors

A number of driving customs may change with this tech, like the courteous high beam dip you (hopefully) do when you see an oncoming car. And the old trick of looking at your right-hand lane line while an oncoming car is blinding you may become a lost skill.  

Prepare for a complete 180 on how we think about high and low beams as the highest beam becomes our normal light mode while a lower beam is something that kicks in only when necessary -- if we perceive that difference at all. And since all of this would be automated on a continuum of shape and brightness, do we lose the concept of low and high beams completely? That's bad news to millions of drivers given to nighttime road rage, yet moot to a large number who just use low beams, regardless of conditions. 

We're just getting started 

This wave of headlight improvement sets the stage and greases the skids for the next: Headlights that offer a form of augmented reality.

Mercedes, Audi and Ford are among the carmakers that have shown headlights using microarrays of light emitters to display graphical indications on the road for navigation, pedestrian accommodation, speed limit indication and more. Headlights that smart might obviate current expensive head displays.

Some of the indications that Ford believes its future projection headlights might display on the road.

Ford

Far beyond silly uses like side mirror puddle lamps, graphical projection headlights can create a rudimentary dialogue between a vehicle and those around it that many believe is key to the acceptance of autonomous cars. Such vehicles need to communicate their awareness and intent to an unsure world of pedestrians, cyclists, passengers and other human drivers. Headlights are perhaps the most logical place to accomplish that.

While smart beam headlights are now a reality, graphic projection lights might run into a more complex thicket of federal state and local regulations as the content they project can run a wide gamut of benefits and risks. But the ice floe that US headlight tech has been locked into for decades has clearly melted.