- audi is one of many automakers offering advanced headlamp and lighting technology in cars.
- among the tech on the horizon is pedestrian and obstacle detection, oled taillamps, and the use of lighting to send traffic-safety information to other drivers.
- unfortunately, these advances aren't available on cars in the u.s. because of our regulations.
you drive into a tunnel and your car's headlights flicker to life. just on the edge of the horizon you can see a set of taillights glowing back at you. you floor it, trying to catch up. it doesn't matter. the faster you drive, the farther out of reach that red glow becomes. worse, it seems this bleak, sunless tube stretches on forever—much like 2020.
this dark tunnel is the u.s. regulatory environment when it comes to lighting, and the rest of the world is that car ahead of us in the tunnel: china, the eu, even canada. at issue, as we pointed out earlier, is a 53-year-old regulation that mandates that all cars sold in the u.s. meet a law that says low- and high-beam headlights cannot operate simultaneously.
we’re bringing this up in the wake of yet more advanced lighting technology that vehicles including audi’s e-tron (and some q5 models), cadillac's xt6, the lexus rx, and cars from bmw, mercedes-benz, and porsche have already activated elsewhere, but, because of our antiquated regulatory environment, not here.
and the situation is getting more dire, because what’s already been sold overseas and now in canada is a merely fantastically stupendous technology called adaptive driving beam (adb) headlights. this is the start, not the end, of what's possible.
adb works by shadowing your car’s lights from blinding the oncoming driver, while still illuminating the driver’s side to a normal high-beam’s throw. (in the eu, some luxury brands pair the leds with a laser high-beam that can stretch slightly more than a third of a mile.) but the point here isn’t reach—it's accuracy. we recently checked out audi's technology and learned that its adb digital-matrix leds work a lot more like the pixels of a smart tv than actual lights, individually funneling the led's photons to 1.3 million micromirrors, each of which can adjust up to 5000 times per second, constantly adapting to only brighten parts of the field of view while shading others.
so while u.s. law futzes around with how to regulate two individual headlights, audi's got 1,299,998 others.
and actually, there’s even more advanced tech on the horizon.
connected lights will be safer
what's coming dramatically clarifies what the rest of the world’s drivers will be getting—and why slow-walking on adb puts american drivers dangerously far behind when it comes to safer lighting.
this past week audi showcased futuristic tech that can display patterns on the road within the "light carpet" the leds illuminate. this includes visible markings, to augment where the car is positioned on the road, so that it's easier for the driver to stay in their lane, which is especially useful in lousy weather.
audi's tech, and competing systems offered by other brands, also foreshortens the reach of the "low" beam on multilane highways, so as you bear down on a truck you're about to overtake the leds shadow out that 18-wheeler and effectively wrap around it, stretching into the passing lane you're about to occupy right as you signal. audi's system, like lexus's bladescan, is also able to detect pedestrians with digital matrix led lighting, and in the future will use the tech to display signage to drivers and likely include that information in hud displays, too.
where this is getting really fancy is in creating visuals well beyond the front of the car.
audi's developed oled taillamps that are starting to mirror what matrix leds allow. again, think display, not lightbulbs. audi was quick to explain that this will allow more creative design interpretation by the owner. (if you thought spinners were dumb, just wait.) but the bigger deal is using the display system for safety.
imagine an esperanto of signals that cars could deploy based on roadway conditions changing or an accident a mile ahead. imagine being able to avoid any such collision because your e-tron detects worsening grip on a rainy interstate, and your rig's oleds would switch to displaying a slippery-when-wet street sign signal on its hatch. this, in turn, could be detectable by a following car's sensors.
or, since audi (also, ford, volvo, and almost every brand you can think of) is exploring car-to-x and 5g integration, such detection could also be transmitted from vehicle to vehicle, so the first car through the snow squall could act as sentry, sending both a transmission and a literal oled billboard to other drivers.
audi is already experimenting with the transmission part of this formula, with cellular vehicle-to-everything (c-v2x) pilot programs in virginia in which construction crews wear vests with 5.9g transmitters that twig drivers of equipped q8s that they're about to enter a work zone. a similar program in georgia equips school buses with transmitters that then tells equipped e-trons when they are approaching kids being dropped off or fetched. it's an obvious extension of what's possible to proliferate this through light technology as well. since states are bound to continue to be cash strapped, enabling vehicles to essentially become "rolling infrastructure" leapfrogs the problem of embedding millions of transmitters.
this kind of thinking also becomes yet another necessary tool in the slog toward autonomy; vehicles that communicate with each other with visible signals as well as c-v2x will have to be part of the sauce.
unfortunately the outlook for all of this is still murky. audi's above experiments are done not through nhtsa, but by working with temporary fcc-licensed partners, like qualcomm. and you probably already know that laser headlights have come in limited and expensive fashion to american roads not through nhtsa, but through the fda—which handles lasers because they can emit radiation.
nhtsa has been dancing around ways to regulate advancements in lighting since 2001, when congress directed the dot to study hid glare. ever since, including in 2013 when toyota asked for permission to begin experimenting with adaptive headlights, the agency hasn’t budged.
the automotive alliance cautioned both in 2018 and this past july that nhtsa's rules for more advanced lighting were "overly stringent and not based on modern headlight systems." that last bit is the key: nhtsa has been looking backward, at mitigating glare from headlight technology that was invented in the last century. but modern adb systems were developed precisely to do just that: to shield oncoming drivers. and, in fact, they can do way more than we ever thought possible. they don't just illuminate anymore. now they also allow both drivers and pedestrians to see, and they augment what we see with better information. we just hope that these are advances that don't happen all over the rest of the globe, while forever leaving american drivers in the dark.