If you’re like me, most of your experience with car headlights has been to switch them from dim to slightly less dim so you can try to avoid hitting all the deer on a drive down a rural road. Car headlamps have come a hell of a long way from the days of old sealed beams you could buy in a gas station—they’re now absurdly advanced lighting subsystems with matrices of lamps and computers and GPS data. Of course, most of these benefits are actually illegal in many countries, so let’s just take a moment to peek at the current state of the headlampery arts.
I realised how out of touch I was regarding modern headlights this past week when I finally got a chance to drive Porsche’s new EV, the Taycan. It’s a fun car, gut-shovingly quick and crammed full of all kinds of technology, but it’s the one bit that wasn’t even enabled on the car I drove that surprised me the most: GPS-enabled headlights.
These actually have been around for a few years, with several companies using the technology. Ford has been combing these GPS-enabled lights with steerable headlamps that, instead of following the steering wheel as is traditionally done with steerable lamps, uses GPS data to follow road curvature and preemptively point the lights where you need to go, if your goal is to stay on the road, at least.
Ford’s system also employs a camera-based system that does all kinds of fun stuff, like dealing specifically with the challenges of roundabouts:
…and not running into people or mammals made of 1,000 kilos of meat:
Again, it’s worth mentioning that in America, a land comprehensively crisscrossed with thousands of miles of dark back roads and a whole nation’s worth of wandering deer, this technology is bafflingly illegal.
Porsche’s (and Audi’s) system uses a matrix of 84 LED lamps that can be selectively and dynamically activated or deactivated, making the headlight beam more like a low-resolution bitmap display than just a simple beam of light.
This allows for things like keeping your high beams on without blinding oncoming drivers:
This system also allows for headlamps to adjust beam patterns to fit the requirements of different countries. Right-hand-drive countries like the United Kingdom require a different sort of light pattern than left-hand-drive countries, and these lights can dynamically adjust to fit local requirements.
Modern headlights are pretty amazing, and it’s absurd that most of these advanced features still illegal in the United States and around the world. Part of the U.S. problem comes from regulations (§ 393.24 – Requirements for head lamps, auxiliary driving lamps and front fog lamps) that state
(e) Lamps to be steady-burning. All exterior lamps (both required lamps and any additional lamps) shall be steady-burning with the exception of turn signal lamps; hazard warning signal lamps; school bus warning lamps; amber warning lamps or flashing warning lamps on tow trucks and commercial motor vehicles transporting oversized loads; and warning lamps on emergency and service vehicles authorised by State or local authorities. Lamps combined into the same shell or housing with a turn signal are not required to be steady burning while the turn signal is in use.
…which effectively rules out dynamic-matrix light systems like Porsche uses.
Really, it’s not surprising anymore. The U.S. has been strangely behind automotive lighting regulations for decades—we were stuck with two sealed-beam headlight shapes while Europe was developing custom-shaped headlamps back in the 1960s (I guess Big Sealed Beam had too many lobbyists) and innovations like steerable lights or lamps under glass were illegal for years, leading to abominations like how cars like the Citroën SM were federalised:
I guess there is one upside, though. These advanced lighting systems are expensive as hell, and if you get in a minor fender-bender replacements can be in the thousands of dollars. I mean, modern headlights on any car tend not to be cheap, even in America, but it does make you nostalgic for the days when you could replace a broken headlight for $15 and a trip to the gas station.