A U.S. Headlight Rule Stuck in the Dark Ages

Audi wants to change a 45-year-old ban on smart lighting | “If you can create a sexier design, they can help with sales”

Angela Greiling Keane

The headlights on the forthcoming Audi A8 sedan can illuminate around corners and throw brighter-than-average beams. They’re also smarter, adjusting automatically to traffic, pedestrians, and road conditions. “Extremely trick,” admired Car and Driver magazine. Audi plans to put the sedans into showrooms around the world this year. U.S. drivers likely will have to wait longer for models equipped with the headlights. That’s because a 1968 regulation requires that headlights switch between two settings: high and low.

Audi’s so-called matrix-beam headlights, an optional feature, are more complex than that. They’re made up of numerous LED bulbs that dim or brighten individually based on what cameras and sensors in the car see ahead. The system allows drivers to ride with some high beams on at all times without blinding others on the road. Say there’s a pickup truck in front of the Audi; one or several of the Audi’s bulbs flip off, while other high-beam bulbs continue to light up the lower areas in the Audi driver’s line of sight.

Luxury car consumers like having new headlight options, says Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of auto researcher Edmunds.com. “They’re considered jewelry, so if you can create a sexier design, they can help with sales,” he says. LED lighting may improve fuel economy, too, he adds — “Just a sliver, but every sliver counts.” Audi plans to charge about $3,000 for the option. (A8s start at $72,000 and go up to $134,500.)

The company is gearing up along with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and General Motors to lobby federal lawmakers to update the headlight rule so it allows for automated features. “Lighting technology changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Stephan Berlitz, Audi’s head of lighting innovations. “It’s difficult to do all these innovative things in this regulation from 1968.”

In an e-mail, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland says he’ll hear out the carmakers’ requests. But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, says the agency doesn’t generally change a regulation unless manufacturers show a proven safety benefit backed up by studies. The lobbying push could be even tougher at a time of budget cuts due to the sequester, she says. “A lighting system that dims, I’m not sure that’s going to be No.1 on their list.”

The bottom line A 1968 U.S. rule requiring beams to switch from high to low means that Audi can’t sell cars with its new automated headlights.


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