Pedestrian-Sensing Headlamps: They Really Work, But The Feds Are Confused

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Imagine if you could see pedestrians before your regular headlights illuminate them. Picture keeping your brights on knowing that passing vehicles would never be blinded. Now delete these images and banish them from memory. The U.S. government allows no such innovations.

Old laws on the books since the 1960s prevent automakers from installing headlamps that can brighten and darken individual lights and bulbs. It’s a valuable safety feature offered in Europe that the Feds, despite a few years of lobbying by various companies, can’t seem to grasp. Technically, according to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, such lights go beyond limits for maximum brightness and their cycling on and off mimics a strobe reserved for emergency vehicles. But that hasn’t stopped BMW from bringing over a 7-series test car equipped with Dynamic Light Spot and letting Consumer Reports, the only publication that physically measures the distance and sweeping arc of new car headlamps, from trying it out. And not surprisingly, it worked and the editors liked it.

It’s simple. Using a technology that is allowed here — an infrared night vision camera with pedestrian detection — Dynamic Light Spot uses focused spotlights in the lower fog lamps to project a bright, non-startling beam at pedestrians anywhere on a dark roadway for a few seconds. The idea is to alert the driver of human life before the main headlamps awash over the person, at which point it could be too late to react should the vehicle be on a crash course. As soon as the car passes, the light switches off. It’s mounted low enough so that it doesn’t dazzle oncoming traffic, either.

“Those of us who had a chance to drive this car commented that at times, the beam illuminated pedestrians we hadn’t even seen yet,” the publication said during a test.

BMW isn’t the inventor behind this potentially life-saving technology. It’s a Swedish supplier called Autoliv, the very company that dreamed up the first three-point seat belt (featured on a 1959 Volvo) and a major supplier of airbags and various electronic safety aids, including night vision and automatic braking, to nearly every automaker in the world. While I haven’t tested Dynamic Light Spot, I did try its adaptive brights during a visit to Autoliv’s headquarters in 2012. Basically, the same cameras that allow for automatic high beams — the ones that flip on your brights when no one’s around — are tweaked to shape the actual headlamp beams. On the far right side of the car, the bulbs were on full blast to brighten the edge of the road while on the left, certain lighting elements that would ordinarily aim toward the opposing windshield dimmed in an instant. Viewed from above, it appears that the headlamps are wrapping around other cars. And you never have to touch the brights, since they’re always on and annoy no one.

This is possible due to the many individual LEDs used in modern automobiles and very advanced software that determines the best lighting paths on the fly. Audi, Mercedes, Volvo, Toyota, Lexus and BMW all have or will be offering such headlamps by next year. But not here.

Currently, the best we can do in the U.S. are headlamps that sweep several degrees when we turn the steering wheel. On tight pitch-black roads, this is actually not a gimmick. You can see around the next corner a hair quicker, which makes all the difference when you’re trying to get home without a scuff. Of course, Tucker did this back in 1948, before LEDs, xenon gas, or the word “adaptive” was even used to describe a light. Our regulators aren’t that smart. They admitted to being well behind the automotive learning curve during the General Motors ignition switch recalls. They don’t totally understand how cars are built. On this technology — one specifically designed to save lives, not to push out useless Internet notifications into our corneas — those folks really ought to see the light. Fast.

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Connecticut, he writes for BestRide, Car and Driver, The Boston Globe and other publications.

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