Audi headlights banned in U.S. by 1968 ruling

Audi customers in Europe will soon be able to buy the A8 sedan with headlights that see around corners and illuminate more space without blinding oncoming motorists, after the automaker showcased them at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the Las Vegas show is the only setting in which Audi can show off the lights because a 45-year-old regulation prohibits their use on U.S. roads.

“The lighting technology changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” Stephan Berlitz, Audi’s head of lighting innovations, said in an interview. “It’s difficult to do all these innovative things in this regulation from 1968.”

Audi is among automakers and lighting manufacturers pushing to change the rule requiring headlights to switch between low- and high-beam settings, a distinction the self-adjusting Audi lights eliminate. Industry representatives are preparing to meet with U.S. regulators as a step toward changing the standard.

The headlight rule, which has been updated over the years, is one of the oldest in U.S. auto safety, predating the 1970 creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Headlight technology has advanced since then from sealed beams to halogen to xenon and now to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

While NHTSA officials said they’re receptive to the new technology, the agency isn’t convinced LED lighting improves safety. Rear-end collisions increased in most models that switched to LED brake lighting from incandescent lamps, the agency said in a report last month.

Audi’s so-called Matrix-beam headlights will debut as an option on the A8, which starts at 70,000 euros in Germany.

Audi expects the lights to be available in non-U.S. markets next year, said Brad Stertz, a U.S.-based Audi spokesman. The headlights are the first to use multiple LEDs to allow drivers to essentially have high beams on at all times. Cameras and sensors direct the LEDs to turn off or dim in response to what’s ahead of them, creating a changing series of lights and shadows to improve visibility.

“Lighting technology has come from having a lighting component like a headlamp that you install in the car to a system that is a combination of light sources sometimes combined with camera-sensors and data processing,” said Bart Terburg, automotive regulations manager for Osram GmbH’s North American unit Osram Sylvania. Terburg is chairman of the lighting systems group for SAE International, a standards-setting group of automotive engineers.

The lights would enhance safety as well as profits, with Audi getting 2,000 to 3,000 euros ($2,605 to $3,908) selling its packages, Berlitz said. U.S. approval could also create opportunities for suppliers including Valeo SA, Koito Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Stanley Electric Co. Ltd.

Cars sold in the United States increasingly include advanced headlights, according to auto researcher, based in Santa Monica, California. For the 2013 model year, 165 models have standard xenon high-intensity discharge lights or LEDs, according to data compiled by Edmunds. Another 95 come with them as options, out of 332 models sold in the United States this year.

Audi and other automakers including General Motors Co. and BMW have a lot at stake because customers are willing to pay for lighting design and style, said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds. “People with extra disposable income who value those aesthetics are the ones buying that standalone option,” Anwyl said in an e-mail. “But, most people who have upgraded lighting get it as part of a technology package. Automakers bundle options that people want with new features that people don’t know they want.”

Lighting options can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the price of a vehicle. Chrysler Group’s Dodge Dart has a light option for $395 while Land Rover’s Range Rover comes with a $31,000 “autobiography package” that includes fancier lights.

Consumers “like the way they look,” Anwyl said of new headlights. “They’re considered jewelry, so if you can create a sexier design they can help with sales. Take those headlights from the 60s and put them on cars today. They’d look pretty funny.” Another attraction is that LED lighting may improve fuel economy, he said. “Just a sliver, but every sliver counts,” he said.

Light-emitting diodes have been around for decades. For years, they had little commercial use beyond the red lights for alarm clocks and calculators. Researchers opened up more applications by learning how to coat blue diodes with phosphor to make the light white. More than 1 million vehicles have been equipped with LED brake lights since GM’s Cadillac DeVille made the switch for the 2000 model year.

NHTSA officials plan to meet with SAE representatives, who include suppliers, automakers and academics, about the headlight standard in the next few months.

While SAE plans initially to present information to NHTSA without seeking changes, Osram’s Terburg said, Audi is looking for the standard to be changed. “The U.S. regulation knows only high-beam and low-beam and nothing in between,” Berlitz said. “The newer technologies allow having something in between.”