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August 19, 2021

What are Smart Headlights? Why Don’t We Have Them in the U.S.?

If you’ve ever experienced the blinding lights of an oncoming car that forgot to turn off their high beams, you may have wished that the forgetful driver had more technologically advanced headlights; headlights that could, say, automatically redirect their beams out of your eyeballs when they see your car approaching.

In fact, such headlights exist, and they get more sophisticated every year. As Autoweek put it, smart headlights make the days of sealed beams “look like the dark ages.” [1]

Tech companies have been researching, producing, testing, and selling better and brighter headlight solutions to increase nighttime visibility, and these solutions are used in automobiles in other parts of the world, but not in the U.S., arguably the most car-crazy nation in the world.

So, what are smart headlights, and why can’t we get them here?

Super-quick ADB primer

Smart headlights are complex technical packages that include cameras, sensors, mirrors, powerfully connected LED lighting, and small computers that control beam direction and brightness.

Upon detecting an oncoming car, adaptive beam technology dims sections of the headlights to avoid blinding the other drivers, while keeping the rest of the road (and sides of the road) illuminated.

Adaptive headlights can also change beam direction to illuminate the layout of the road as it curves steeply, allowing drivers to see upcoming obstacles with a fluidity that is not possible with stationary automotive headlights.

While Samsung Semiconductor does manufacture LED solutions for smart headlights, they are currently only being utilized in cars destined for overseas consumers.

pixcell explodedsamsung pixcell spec

Samsung’s PixCell LED lighting solution is specifically manufactured for such adaptive driving beam (ADB) packages. In PixCell, LED segments are separated from each other by a silicon wall. This prevents what is known as “optical cross-talk,” which is where the light signal from one LED interferes with the signal from another. Each separate segment operates like an individual pixel, able to control light distribution based on need—need is established by the automobile’s sensors and software.

PixCell’s light-emitting area is significantly smaller than convention discrete LED modules created for ADB systems (84% smaller!), which allows manufacturers to reduce headlamp size by 30-50%, making them ideal for really sleek, modern car designs.[2]

Lights that could close the safety gap

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), “European vehicles equipped with adaptive driving beam headlights increase roadway lighting by as much as 86 percent when compared to U.S. low beam headlights.” AAA also found that although the high beams currently in use in the U.S. can improve illumination but 28%, roughly 64% of American drivers don’t regularly use them at night.[3]

pixcell nighttime

Nighttime driving accounts for only a quarter of total drive time in the U.S., and yet more than half of all automobile accidents take place at night[4]. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that brighter, more concentrated light can improve visibility on a nighttime drive.

But if these ADB beams can make nighttime driving safer, why aren’t they available here in the U.S.?

The reason is basic bureaucracy. In 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety developed a regulation (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108), which specified that road-legal vehicles must have a dedicated high beam and a dedicated low beam.

Because adaptive beams don’t have dedicated, separate high and low beams, they violate this regulation. Adaptive beams can adjust brightness and illumination area, but they do all of it using the same LED lights.

Will No. 108 be updated?

Clearly, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108 was written before anyone at National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) conceived of headlights that could respond to external stimuli and selectively alter luminescence based on environment. But it’s still a regulatory blind spot, if you will, that has prevented safer technology from being fully utilized in the U.S.

In 2018, the Toyota Corporation petitioned the NHTSA to permit ADB technology in U.S. vehicles. The agency is set to rule on the proposed amendments to Rule 108 in July 2021 (the government website devoted to rules and regulations specifically says that final ruling will be delivered this month).

In promising news, the 2021 $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate includes language that promotes better headlights, and driving beams that can adjust for brightness.[5]

What will become of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108?

All indications point to NHTSA amending the law to allow the kind of adaptive headlamps found in European-market cars to be adopted in the United States.

For safety’s sake, we hope that this technology is soon allowed in the United States.


[1] Assume that the pun is intended.
[2]We should note that our PixCell LED can be used in lighting packages manufactured for the U.S. market; they currently have to have the ABD function disabled, allowing drivers to utilize the standard low and high beam settings, while enjoying the superior illumination that PixCell provides. In theory, the adaptive driving beam functionality could be restored to vehicles using PixCell should ADB become legal in the U.S.
[3]Another study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that more than 80% of drivers fail to turn on their high beams when they should be using them. But why? Researchers speculate that drivers simply forget to turn their high beams on, or are concerned about hampering the vision of oncoming drivers so much that they don’t use the high beams even when it’s safe to do so.
[4] Poor visibility is an obvious culprit, although other factors, like alcohol consumption and fatigue, also play a role.
[5] https://www.consumerreports.org/car-safety/infrastructure-bill-omits-key-safety-features-in-cars-a1105775110/