Adaptive Headlights Are Coming to the US. Here’s What That Means

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Surprise, surprise. Government can move quickly. Admittedly, legislators required 55 years to realize the United States had painted itself into a corner regarding headlight technology. Yet, when the current administration gave the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration two years to legalize adaptive headlights and draw America level with the world, the NHTSA said, “Nah, just hold our beer for six months.” What is adaptive driving beam technology, and what does it mean for American motorists?

What Are Adaptive Headlights? 

Adaptive Driving Beams (ADB) employ a technology called automated beamforming. That may sound like something Captain Kirk had Scotty concoct at the last minute to foil yet another Romulan incursion across the Neutral Zone into Federation space, but it’s actually just software that controls the intensity and direction of light emanating from a modern headlight array, which, rather than consisting of one or two large incandescent bulbs, now typically contains several smaller halogen ones. 

The idea is simple. All those smaller bulbs, operating independently, enable your vehicle’s computer to respond precisely to changing driving conditions. On winding roads, corner lights follow your steering, helping you see around the bend much sooner. On unlit straightaways, bright light automatically “carpets” the pavement just ahead while beams focused on oncoming traffic remain dimmer. Some systems provide wider illumination for lane changes. All told, drivers enjoy increased invisibility without blinding oncoming traffic, cyclists, pedestrians, or innocent wildlife. 

Why Were Adaptive Driving Beams Illegal in the United States? 

While there were attempts to link headlights to steering as early as 1905, computerized ADB technology has been present for more than a decade in vehicles sold in several European countries, as well as in Canada and Japan. However, its availability in the United States was prohibited by an outdated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. Enacted in 1967, the regulation required high and low beams on all automobiles sold in the US, without exception. 
In keeping with the emphasis on new technologies in the recently-passed infrastructure bill, the current administration recognized that the regulation’s restrictive wording made vehicles on American roads less safe than those in other developed countries. Thus, the federal government directed the NHTSA to revise and update national safety standards to allow for advanced technology such as adaptive headlighting. With the new standards published in mid-February (2022), manufacturers can now equip their cars and trucks with ADB technology.

What Enabled the NHTSA To Act So Quickly?

Even before the infrastructure bill, pressure existed to make roads safer by updating the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. As it was, studies showed traditional high beams were underused on American roads because drivers feared they might blind oncoming traffic. That concern grew when American carmakers began featuring automatic high beams. Sensors struggled to interpret lighting conditions, creating a strobe effect that hindered drivers’ depth perception and ability to judge the speed of other vehicles. 

That said, there were also concerns that ADB was not the answer, especially given that safety standards in other countries permit much brighter headlamps than those allowed in the US. However, an American Automobile Association study alleviated those fears. The AAA study determined that when cresting hills, adaptive driving beams on European cars did not create glare for oncoming traffic as often as high beams on American vehicles. Trusting the science, the agency moved quickly to approve ADB technology. 

There’s Always a Catch

Unfortunately, while moving much closer to the speed of light than that of the government to approve adaptive headlights, officials failed to update the US regulations limiting headlamp intensity. Thus, many manufacturers are uncertain whether they can activate the ADB technology that comes pre-installed, albeit disabled, in European-made cars sold in America. Without clarification on whether those systems can be legally activated, American car owners must continue to wait to enjoy the safety of ADB technology in their vehicles. 
Safety features are critical to many buyers looking to purchase a new automobile. It goes without saying that, in the coming months, prospective car owners will want to know whether the new vehicle that has caught their eye is equipped with ADB technology. Online services that provide extensive details on various models, be they new, used, or certified pre-owned, can place that information and more at your fingertips. Visit BestRide to start your search!