Better Headlights Now Key to Top IIHS Safety Rating, but NHTSA's Outdated Regulations Are Embarrassing

Car companies accused of caring more about headlight aesthetics than performance, but NHTSA and its Luddite rulebook are really what's holding automakers back.

Inside The 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS)
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

"Aesthetic design, not road performance, has been controlling headlamps." 

So says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), as quoted in a new article in The New York Times about the future of headlight technology. The takeaway from the piece: American carmakers have been getting away with headlights that don't do enough to make drivers safer, but that might change because the IIHS will, starting this year, only give its highest Top Safety Pick Plus rating to vehicles that receive an "adequate" headlight ranking. (The Times notes that, in a study last year of 31 vehicles, only one car, the Toyota Prius v, received a "good" rating, while 10 models received a grade of "poor.") IIHS headlamp ratings are based in part on illumination distance (492 feet down the road for high beams, and 328 feet down the right side of the road for low beams) while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only requires a minimum light output rating, which automakers self-certify.

For those who don't know, the IIHS is an independent agency in no way connected to the government. Automakers pay to have their cars tested by IIHS, because the chance at a "Top Safety Pick" ranking is a chance at marketing gold. (Do you think any parent in the U.S. would buy a new family car without that sticker?) If you've paid attention to the proliferation of weird crash tests like the "frontal small overlap"—basically, dinging a small bit of the front corner of a car into another vehicle, or a pole—and the hoops that automakers jump through to build cars that pass them, you have the IIHS to thank. (And yes, when a new crash test is invented, automakers have to pay again to re-test.)

Basically, a lot of industry folks complain behind closed doors that the IIHS has become a cash-grab outfit wielding outsize influence. But in the case of headlights, the IIHS might actually force some good here. The NHTSA cares so little about headlights they actively bar most of the coolest light technology on the market, like Audi's Matrix Laser system, as seen on the Q8 SUV Concept, which uses a single laser as a light source but breaks up the beam into a million distinct pixels by the diodes. This allows the system to recognize pedestrians and oncoming cars and cut just the light that would otherwise shine in the other driver's eyes. It's a sort of auto-dimming system that reacts to its environment, therefore giving the driver the brightness of high beams at all times but without the annoyance (or danger) to oncoming traffic. And we can't get it here, because it's too technologically advanced.

The NHTSA still requires to distinct light sources for headlights—high beams separate from low beams, basically—so despite all the neat stuff the system can do, the "single laser" source means it doesn't pass muster. And lest you think this is some brand-new tech that just got sprung on the agency recently, I personally saw this system, which is legal in Europe, demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show ... in 2013. (Yes, a handful of R8 V10s will get a laser-based light system this year, but one that still lacks the full functionality of Matrix Laser.)

"We’re very excited about adaptive driving beams,” David Hines, director of NHTSA's office of crash avoidance standards, is quoted as saying in the Times article. But, the article goes on to say, "[Hines] would not predict when the standard would be approved." 

Yeah, it's only been four goddamn years. Slow and steady and all that. Meanwhile, "beta" versions of self-driving car technology is allowed to proliferate on public roads, amongst drivers who never signed up to be part of said beta testing, for cars that fucking drive themselves. No problem there, though, right?

Get off your ass, NHTSA. This is embarrassing.