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Audi's next-gen LED headlights hit Washington speed bump

Audi got some laughs on Sunday when, during the Super Bowl blackout, the luxury brand's official Twitter account joked that it would bring some of its signature LED headlights to help illuminate the darkened Mercedes Benz-sponsored Superdome.

It was a jab at one of Audi's main German competitors, of course, but the joke worked because the high-efficiency bulbs have become one of Audi's design signatures. The brand is hardly alone in using LEDs, but no one has adopted them as widely as Audi, which uses them to give each model distinctive running lights.

"They should be called Audi lights," Audi of America President Scott Keogh boasted last week during a speech at the Washington Auto Show.

Audi now has another lighting evolution in mind. But the brand needs help from safety regulators to bring the technology to the American market.

The feature, called "matrix beam lighting," debuted in the A2 concept car at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Audi says matrix beam lighting allows drivers to use their high beams to interact with other nearby vehicles. A camera automatically detects nearby cars and pedestrians. It would dim some of the bulbs that make up the high beam, thereby keeping the brightest lights out of other drivers' eyes.

It would "essentially eliminate the high- and low-beam settings, or the need for the driver to change them," Stephan Berlitz, the head of lighting technology and electronics at Audi AG, said in a recent issue of Audi magazine.

More light without blinding anyone? Sounds great -- as long as it works.

But the system that Audi is developing is not allowed under rules set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Berlitz said last week at a gathering of technical experts and regulators during the Washington Auto Show.

Under the U.S. regulation, known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, headlights are not allowed to shine in such a dynamic way.

Perhaps it was an effort to prevent old high beams from being too distracting. But not too long ago, Audi asked NHTSA for an interpretation of the standards to figure out whether its new design – clearly an effort to make driving safer -- would be acceptable.

This is just one of many areas where the United States and Europe have different standards. Automakers routinely spend millions of dollars (or euros) to reengineer vehicles for sale in both markets, and have pushed for trade deals that would knock down some of the differences.

For the time being, Americans will have to be content with a less ambitious feature that dims high beams for oncoming cars. Audi put the technology into its A8 sedan for the 2013 model year, calling it "high-beam assistant."

American regulators may very well interpret their rules to let matrix beam lighting hit the market -- once they are confident it is safe, of course.

But until the rules are clear, Audi will probably have an easier time introducing the feature in Europe. So will German competitors like Mercedes, BMW and Opel, which have all demonstrated versions of intelligent headlights.

That may frustrate those Americans who complain that Europeans tend to get the first crack at whatever the German car companies have to offer. And they should know that matrix beam lighting is not all that Audi has in mind.

Berlitz said Audi is also thinking of using lasers for lighting. That path, being pursued aggressively by BMW, would certainly offer a distinctive look.

But before laser headlights or tail lights can become a reality, car companies and government officials will need to decide whether a laser diode counts as a "light emitting diode" for regulatory purposes, Berlitz said. It is a diode that emits light, so it might seem to be an open and shut case.

But regulators may decide lasers are different enough to require new safety rules.

That makes sense. Anyone who has been flashed in the eyes by a laser pointer – or, for that matter, by the high beams of a driver who insists on using them at inappropriate times -- probably understands the need for caution.

Those people can still hope the wait for the new brights doesn't last very long.

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