Audi headlights await federal rules
NHTSA considers revising regulations
Audi AG, which has made LED lights a signature of its vehicle design, now has another lighting evolution in mind.
The feature, called "matrix beam lighting," is meant to let drivers use high beams all the time without blinding other drivers. It would "essentially eliminate the high- and low-beam settings, or the need for the driver to change them," Stephan Berlitz, the company's head of lighting technology and electronics, recently told Audi magazine.
There is a catch: The German automaker needs help from U.S. safety regulators to bring the headlights to the United States.
Audi has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for an interpretation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which limits the types of headlights automakers can use in their vehicles.
Under the rules, it seems that a headlight beam cannot change "dynamically," Wayne Killen, manager of product strategy and technology planning at Audi of America, told Automotive News.
That is a problem for matrix beam lighting, which uses a camera to detect nearby cars and pedestrians. The system then dims some of the light-emitting diodes in the headlights so they shine into the eyes of oncoming drivers with the brightness of an ordinary low beam.
For development cars, Audi buys the camera from Robert Bosch GmbH and the lighting equipment from Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. Audi developed its own software.
Audi was optimistic about its request to NHTSA, Killen said, "because we felt the broader directive of safety and well-illuminated night driving was met."
But NHTSA has not made a formal decision on Audi's request.
John Bullough, a senior research scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center, says he thinks NHTSA will need to change its rules if it wants to accommodate Audi's new technology.
"Looking at what the standard currently says, it really wouldn't fit in," Bullough said. "It's not a high beam, and obviously it's not a low beam. Since it's not either one, it's not technically something that would be allowable."
In a statement e-mailed to Automotive News last week, NHTSA said it has asked SAE International to study whether new lighting features make driving safer. The agency said it will consider revising its rules to allow features such as Audi's.
"NHTSA has been following very closely the recent developments in advanced lighting and believes these new lighting approaches may provide drivers with additional visibility," the statement said.
Many automakers use 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 month during a speech at the Washington Auto Show.
Minutes later, at an event sponsored by SAE, Audi's Berlitz gave a presentation on the regulatory problem to automotive engineers and regulators.
Berlitz, based at Audi's headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, noted that Audi is not the only one trying to gain lighting supremacy. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen are all working on advanced lighting systems, he said.
Audi debuted matrix beam lighting in the A2 concept car at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show. It has not put the feature into a production vehicle, but the road to commercialization is clearer in Europe.
For the time being, Americans will have to be content with a less ambitious feature that dims the headlights at the approach of a car. Audi put the technology into its A8 sedan for the 2013 model year, calling it "high-beam assistant."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.