Splitting headlights for car designers is exactly what it sounds like: front lighting features housed in two separate assemblies per side rather than one. It's used often enough in recent cars that it’d be fair to call it a trend. The Nissan Juke, last-gen Jeep Cherokee, and more recently BMW i7 are definitive examples of the divisive design trend—literally and figuratively. Why is this look popular? I wanted to investigate.
No other automaker has embraced this design motif more often than Hyundai and Genesis. Most of its model lineup and nearly all of its SUVs have a robotic, ultra-futuristic design language over the anthropomorphic comfort of normal headlights. But you’ve probably seen a version of this look before. Plenty of pickup trucks and SUVs from General Motors have had split headlights over the years. The 2011 Nissan Juke had an interesting take on it, and the 2014 Jeep Cherokee freaked us out with its distinctive split-light look. See also: The not-for-America 2014 Citroen C4 Cactus. The old Pontiac Aztek had split headlights too, but with different styling that didn’t include daytime running lights. That car was ahead of its time and adding rugged looks to non-trucks didn’t get popular until a lot more recently.
Before I set out for answers, my hypothesis was this: Automakers adopted split headlights in the face of ever-tightening crash safety regs and the industry’s grand emissions- and economy-driven imperial march toward larger cars. As cars get taller, headlights also go higher, which could cause glare and possibly influence crash safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety considers headlight glare in its safety scores, which influences the overall score, and the agency's approval is important to automakers.
To test if this theory held any water, I spoke to a few automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal regulatory body that sets safety rules. The answers I found were generally unexpected. It seems that nobody was concerned with safety in the slightest, and all claimed that the design was purely aesthetic with some possible minor safety bonuses.
“It was strictly an aesthetic choice,” BMW spokesperson Jay Hanson wrote in an email about the new i7. “This new light signature is a progressive interpretation of BMW’s well-known double-round headlights with halo rings … it was not a matter of compliance with some regulation.”
BMW’s Head of Design Domagoj Dukec went in-depth with BMWBLOG in a Youtube video that provides more detailed design insights, but there’s no evidence that the change was influenced by mandates.
One of the most iconoclastic split-headlight cars was the “KL” generation Jeep Cherokee, which was new for 2014. That car was aesthetically on a completely different planet than its predecessor and has some of the most prominently featured split headlights of anything on the road. We approached Stellantis for comment on the 2014-2018 Jeep Cherokee. Because that car has a relatively high nose, pedestrian safety and headlight glare could have been possible issues. Yet, the response from Stellantis spokesperson Amy Delcamp was also a design-driven sentiment rather than a compliance one.
“The split LED daytime running light and headlamp design was inspired from a sketch in which the designer was challenged to create a modern and forward-thinking design that would also inspire the exterior styling of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee,” Delcamp wrote in an email. “There are several regulations and measurements we adhere to for forward lighting; in this case, there were no rules to prevent us from moving the LED daytime running light above the headlamp in a separate compartment.” Jeep ended up abandoning the original KL Cherokee’s lighting design after a few years for a more traditional look for the 2019 model-year facelift.
With the new Blazer, Chevrolet deployed the split-headlight style, too. “The ‘split lamp’ design meets all [performance] requirements while affording styling additional flexibility,” General Motors spokesperson Kellie Van Maele said in an email. According to GM’s people, safety or compliance wasn’t a consideration at all in the adoption of split headlights.
Of all the automakers, Hyundai has embraced split headlights almost categorically. According to spokesperson Derek Joyce, it was a design- and customer-focused decision.
“We have received strong consumer sentiment for these split-headlight designs in pre-launch research and will continue to monitor their appeal to our customers going forward,” Joyce wrote in an email. What does that mean? Focus groups really liked the split headlights in Hyundai’s research.
To confirm these answers, we directly asked the NHTSA to see if any internal directives or regulations could have driven the trend. Even when presented with my brace of questions, an NHSTA spokesperson replied with the pertinent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard and clarified, “there is no relational mounting height requirement between the daytime running lights and the upper or lower beam headlights.” In other words, no FMVSS stipulates any sort of safety rule for split headlights.
Basically, my hypothesis was completely wrong. Safety and headlight regulations have nothing to do with the design trend, at least if the automakers are to be believed. This momentum is supposedly design-driven and fueled by consumer demand. And with recent updates to FMVSS regarding adaptive headlights, lighting technology is only set to get smaller and more outrageously prominent in car design.