Current headlight technology is astonishingly good. However, I didn’t know how good it could be until I drove a 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo. I know, that’s a weird takeaway from a car going 0-60mph in just 2.7 seconds, but this wasn’t just any 911 Turbo. Porsche let me spend a week in a European 911 Turbo – it had German license plates on it and all.
There are usually some differences between European and American cars, but the main thing I’ll zoom in on is the headlight technology. Many of us may not realize it, but we are missing out a lot in the US when it comes to advanced headlamp safety features. The problem can be corrected, but our federal regulators must act. My week in this extra German Porsche has convinced me we need those regulators to jump on it.
This 911 Turbo featured Porsche’s top-tier PDLS Plus Matrix Design headlight option. It uses 84 individually controllable LEDs in a three row matrix module. This hardware provides extremely accurate light distribution, allowing Porsche to incorporate features such as the “masked high beam” and “adaptive glare reduction” that are not legal in the US due to our headlamp regulations. Other manufacturers such as Audi, Mercedes-Benz and more offer similar headlights outside of the US.
So what makes them so much better than our current headlights? The image below best illustrates “masked high beam”.
In essence, the high beam never turns off completely at night when driving on a dark road. Rather than acting as an on / off light switch like all current American high beams, Porsche simply obscures the LEDs (a fraction of the 84 available) that would otherwise shine in the eyes of oncoming drivers. The system uses cameras and sensors to track other cars on the road and can track a perfectly obscured opening for the other cars, while still emitting high beam-like light everywhere else. It feels like magic to see it in action for the first time. The lights dim to the left as a car approaches, but remain bright on the right and illuminated far down the road and to the sides as if the light is still on. As soon as the oncoming car passes, the lights on the left will flash back to their fully lit settings.
Tracking other cars is also made safer. The high beam cuts a perfect rectangle of shadow from the cars I’m following, but stays upright on either side so I can see forward and around the car straight ahead. The extra light I got could easily help me pick out a deer or other animal to hide in the shadows on the side of the road. It is especially powerful when cornering, as the light follows the car in front of you into the corner and stays behind it for a moment so as not to dazzle the driver.
Regardless of the situation, these lights illuminate more of the road with significantly improved effectiveness than the lights of any American car. It made driving at night less stressful and no doubt safer for me and other drivers alike.
This 911 Turbo I drive is a German spec car and it’s the first time I’ve experienced the active LED matrix beam lighting (PDLS Plus) that you can’t get here. I am floored. This technology is AMAZING. It is a crime that we cannot have these headlights here yet. pic.twitter.com/2cXwVE00i3
– Zac Palmer (@zacpalmerr) April 16, 2021
And then there is the “adaptive glare control”. Do you know how often high beams bounce off road signs and blind you temporarily? That does not happen with these lamps. The same cameras and sensors can detect road signs and then dim the LEDs aimed at them to an acceptable brightness as you approach them. This way you can drive past signs with the lighting switched on and not be temporarily blinded by bright light. Very cool!
To put it lightly, it feels like a crime that our current regulations do not allow manufacturers to use these types of lights in the US. “These types of lights” have been called adaptive high beam by most people, and so far “have been hindered by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 108. The exact language holding back manufacturers within these new rules specifically states that headlamps have a must have a special passing beam and a special driving beam in order to comply with regulations and be legal on the road. If so, these adaptive bundles should not perform optimally. Porsche and others can install the hardware on their vehicles sold here, but they have to work as two passive settings: low beam and high beam with nothing in between. So yes, the technology on some select US spec cars is there; it is only software limited to perform as a traditional headlamp until the regulations change.
Unfortunately, this archaic regulatory language (created in the 1960s) makes cars in the US less safe to drive at night these days. That’s why NHTSA needs to shift into gear and make adaptive high beam legal. Toyota originally filed a petition with the NHTSA for a regulatory change to allow adaptive high beam in 2013. There was positive news from the NHTSA in 2018 as the agency said it was in the process of revising the regulations to allow allow these lights. However, to this day there is still no final judgment and adaptive high beam is still not allowed.
I asked the NHTSA for the latest news on where it stands on this matter and got it in response from an NHTSA spokesperson.
“The NHTSA’s number one priority is safety and we are committed to reducing the number of injuries and deaths on our roads. NHTSA regulates lamps, reflective devices and related equipment through Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 108. The purpose of this standard is to reduce the number of accidents and injuries from traffic incidents by providing adequate lighting for the roadway and by increasing the visibility of motor vehicles on public roads.
“NHTSA is finalizing regulations to allow adoption of ADB [adaptive driving beams] in the United States. As a data-driven, science-based agency, NHTSA must first collect data and conduct research to measure the scope of a safety issue and determine where the best safety benefits lie – especially when considering regulatory action to amend or enact Federal Motor Vehicle Safety . Standards (FMVSS). NHTSA focuses on improving safety through FMVSS while reducing the risk of unintended consequences that could introduce safety risks or cause damage; data and solid science are essential for that purpose. “
At first glance, this looks like there may be some movement in the near future. However, it’s hard to have a lot of optimism when manufacturers have been asking for the same thing for eight years and still lack approval. I asked Toyota if it had any insight into the latest news it heard from the NHTSA. A Toyota spokesperson sent us the following.
“We had heard that the rules were going to be enacted by the NHTSA under the previous government, but they weren’t. We understand that the rule is being revised by the new administration. “
In short, we are waiting for President Biden’s NHTSA to make a decision. When that will happen has not yet been defined, as NHTSA has no commitment to a timeline.
It is impossible to emphasize enough how much better these lights made nighttime driving. Another recent night drive in a European 2022 Volkswagen Golf R with similar headlamp technology only cemented it for me. Headlamps are an essential safety device – the IIHS recently even put an emphasis on headlamp performance – and night driving could quickly become safer if the government acted. In addition, there are enormous possibilities that go beyond the adaptive high beam and the dimming of road signs. More complex digital lights could swing up to mark pedestrians on the side of the road or on a pedestrian crossing. They could flash warning to prevent people from running into the street or display various warning symbols on the ground for approaching construction zones and bad weather. There are all kinds of innovative ways we can play with light and ultimately make the roads safer – manufacturers showed us the concepts. We just have to make it possible now.
Europe has enjoyed the extra safety that these adaptive lamps can offer for years. I’ve seen what they can do and I believe they are a safety and anxiety-relieving game changer. Let’s make it happen.