Twice a year or so I drive from Denver to LA, and there’s a stretch of highway in Utah that’s pretty solitary at night. It’s often outside of cell service, and barreling through the dark (no streetlights, of course) in a 2005 Toyota is tricky business. With my brights on, I’ve been able to see and slow down for elk grazing just 15 feet away from the highway. If one of them had decided to make a leap for the other side of the highway and I hadn’t seen them beyond the curtain of darkness, both of us would have quickly been toast.
But that kind of driving requires a lot of vigilance, because you also don’t want to blind oncoming truckers for equally serious safety reasons. So, if you do that stretch of highway at night, you end up spending 250 miles with a finger on the headlight post, keeping the brights on when you’re alone, and turning them off when any headlights or taillights pop up on the horizon.
There are technological solutions for this problem (well, in new cars, maybe not in a 2005 hatchback). In Europe and Japan, adaptive driving beam (ADP) technology can throw light away from the field of view of oncoming traffic and reduce glare reflected off street signs.
But the field may grow more advanced than that. This week, Texas Instruments announced a chipset that can offer detailed control of a car’s headlights, allowing auto-parts makers to control up to a million pixels in an LED- or laser-equipped lamp. With additional sensor input, that means the system can turn off the part of the headlight that would project into the windshields of oncoming cars. The new system can also project images and signs onto the road ahead of you, like lane markings during a road closure or navigation directions.
But currently in the US, the new TI chipset is not available to drivers because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t updated its headlight regulations since the 1960s.
The NHTSA may have been negligent when it refused to update the regulations in 2014 (that’s when Audi brought out brand new laser-beam adaptive headlights). But the decision not to update headlight regulations is slightly more informed these days. In 2015, the NHTSA did a study of Europe’s use of adaptive headlights (PDF) and found that “when an ADB system has a long preview of another vehicle, ADB can perform well.” But the agency also found that “when an ADB system does not have a long preview of another vehicle, such as in an intersection scenario or when two vehicles are oncoming on a curved road, ADB does not have enough time to react to adapt its beam pattern.”
Ars has reached out to the NHTSA for guidance on the state of regulations in 2018, and we’ll update this story when we hear back. But at the moment it seems the administration still only permits high beams and low beams—no funny business.
But three years have passed since the US traffic administrator opted not to update its regulations, and that’s three years that technology has used to improve. Even if headlights respond too slowly to oncoming traffic from the driver’s left and right, an adaptive driving beam could be useful exclusively to communicate directions to the driver or to offer information to pedestrians or fellow drivers.
For Texas Instruments, that means looking for a market outside the US until the NHTSA institutes changes, which the company hopes will be sooner rather than later. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is evaluating ADB technology in the US while working to make larger regulatory updates,” a TI spokesperson told Ars. Plus, there’s still some time before these kinds of headlights make it onto the road. The chipset that enables these headlight functions, Texas Instruments’ DLP5531-Q1, won’t be generally available until the second half of 2018, but the company says that “Lead customers are now sampling and designing [the chipset] for high-resolution headlight systems.”