Smart headlights are finally on the way

An infrastructure law passed last year set a 2023 deadline for approval of so-called adaptive driving beam lights for US roads.

Audi digital matrix headlights. “This is our chance to stop falling behind the standards used around the world,” said one expert. Credit Card … from Stella Kalinina

I’m driving in the California hills high above Malibu, in a dark blue electric Audi E-tron, and I’m headed down a very black winding road. Instinctively, I got to running high beams. But before I have a chance to do so, the low light automatically rises and spreads like a hand fan, filling the entire path with light and dropping it off into the distance.

A few seconds later, I lit the headlights of a car approaching my headlights; The angle of the high beam downward as the shape of the light is constantly changing, changing patterns to avoid illuminating the oncoming vehicle.

You just tried adaptive headlights, or ADB, one of the most significant advances in vehicle lighting technology in decades. With ADB illumination, vehicle headlights are essentially always on high beam, while cameras and software instruct them to constantly reshape the beam to avoid blinding oncoming drivers or shining in the rearview mirrors of those approaching in front.

The bad news is that despite being widely used in Europe and Asia for more than a decade, these smart headlights are illegal in the United States. During my demonstration drive, I was testing a European model not for sale here from the E-tron with Audi’s futuristic digital matrix headlight system.

The good news is that after years of failed attempts to allow the technology into, the ADB’s spotlight will soon be on American cars and trucks, thanks to a section in the recently passed Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act that mandates its use.

According to the Infrastructure Act, adaptive beam headlights must be approved for use in the United States within two years. They will be allowed to meet standards developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, which are very similar to the systems already in use in Europe.

Lives and dollars are the bet. Smart headlights are expected to pay off with significant safety gains, according to a 2019 study from AAA. The report said widespread adoption would prevent thousands of accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists annually.

Using federal data from 2015, the study reported about 2,000 pedestrian deaths, and 31,000 injuries, where alcohol was not a factor but dark or low-light conditions. She indicated that about 14,000 such accidents occurred among cyclists. AAA predicts that smart headlights will prevent at least 6 percent of these accidents, resulting in thousands of lives saved and more than $1 billion in reduced economic and social expenditures.

The report also predicted 18,000 fewer wildlife accidents (it noted that there are approximately 290,000 accidents annually), saving another $500 million annually.

ADB systems relieve driver fatigue at night, according to research by Valeo, a major supplier of vehicle lighting technology. The company’s study found that driver fatigue levels, measured by heart rate variability, decreased by 36 percent when ADB systems were used instead of standard low beams.

“Once you drive a vehicle with adaptive beams, you’ll see how great it is,” said Bill Goss, director of the Federal Program for SAE International, a standards organization. “With ADB, you will no longer have to look into a tree to save your vision because someone is coming towards you in high rays. This is our chance to stop being left behind by the standards used around the world.”

Zdravko Meric, Technical Director of Vehicle Safety Standards at BMW of America, echoed that sentiment. “We are really excited to introduce ADB lamps to the US market,” he said. “It’s certainly a welcome advance in lighting technology.”

The number of beam patterns offered by ADB systems varies, based on each automaker’s technology. GM vehicles in China equipped with ADB can create 34 radial patterns, while digital systems from Audi and Mercedes-Benz use millions of micro-mirrors to create an infinite number of shapes.

Audi’s digital matrix headlights, currently available (but disabled) on the US version of the E-tron, can create a bright-light “carpet” on the highway, illuminating the lane ahead, widening to show the road when the car changes lanes, and then shrinking back Others once the lane change is complete.

This light mat “helps drivers anticipate bends and stay in their lane,” said Stefan Berlitz, head of Audi’s lighting development department. “By visualizing the position of the vehicle in the driveway, the lighting function is particularly useful where the road narrows.”

Addition of a working attraction in the US version: the ability to display one of five animations when locking and unlocking the car. The radar detects if there is a wall in front of the vehicle and directs the image to it or toward the ground, resolving distortion and elevation when needed.

Switching to ADB-compatible headlights can be quick for some drivers who own Audi, BMW or Mercedes models with faulty units. Once the ADB standard is approved, a simple software upgrade can activate it.

Some owners who couldn’t wait for the rationing say they figured out how to activate their matrix headlights, and at least one aftermarket dealer in Southern California will turn them on for $900.

Adaptive beam headlights could be just the beginning of the development of advanced vehicle lighting. In Germany, Audi’s digital matrix headlights can identify and illuminate pedestrians on the road. In the future, combined with the car’s navigation system, lights could cast a large arrow in front of the car to direct the driver to where to exit the highway.

Valeo is developing a system that uses artificial intelligence to adapt the car’s headlights to the age of the driver, reducing glare, for example, for older drivers who are more sensitive to it.

For automotive lighting experts, the day when ADB systems are approved cannot come soon. “Once you’ve driven a car with adaptive beam headlights, you won’t want to look back,” said Michael Larsen, GM Technical Associate for Exterior Lighting.

“It really is day and night.”

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