With a recent petition, Toyota has intensified the pressure on safety regulators to approve new headlights currently forbidden on U.S. roads.
The headlights use cameras to detect other cars and automatically dim the portions of the high beam that would shine in other drivers' eyes. Toyota has installed these high beams in 16,600 cars sold in Europe and Japan, but they are banned under a U.S. regulation that was last revised in 1999.
Toyota and other automakers have argued for years that the feature would make nighttime driving safer. And in March Toyota upped the ante, filing a petition that asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to update its headlight regulations.
Automakers mainly see the new headlights as a convenience feature giving drivers more light to drive by and saving the hassle of switching between high and low beams. But the new feature also "offers potentially significant safety benefits," Toyota said in its petition.
If put into all cars, high beams that do not blind other drivers could save an estimated nine of the 2,334 pedestrians who die annually in the United States because of dark driving conditions, Toyota estimated, based on an analysis of NHTSA accident data.
In a statement to Automotive News, NHTSA signaled it may be open to changing its rules, which currently require cars to have high beams and low beams, with no settings in between. The agency will start a research project this year to assess the headlights and will also seek comments on Toyota's petition.
"The agency continues to look at ways in which the federal lighting standard can provide even better illumination for drivers," NHTSA's statement said.
For now, U.S. customers will have to wait. But the episode is a sign of how headlights have become a selling point for cars.
Automakers already offer beams that can swivel into oncoming turns for the sake of safety, and LED running lights that give cars a signature front design. Now they see adaptive high beams as another marketing edge.
Toyota says it has sold the headlights in about 1,600 units of the Lexus LS sedan in Europe. The headlights also have gone into 7,000 units of the LS and 8,000 units of the Toyota Crown sedan in Japan, where they are coupled with headlamp washers for a price of about $600 at current exchange rates, a Toyota spokeswoman said.
Mercedes-Benz says it will introduce its own system, called Adaptive High Beam Assist PLUS, in the redesigned S class that is scheduled to go on sale this summer or fall. A more basic version of the system, which switches to low beams automatically when it detects a car ahead, already is available in several models in the United States.
Audi is preparing to offer its Matrix Beam headlights in Europe. The company has not announced which models will get them or what they will cost, a spokesman said.