Smart Adaptive Headlights Will Soon Brighten U.S. Roads

These high-tech headlights can illuminate the road better without casting glare

Audi adaptive headlights illustration Illustration: Audi

Adaptive driving beam (ADB) headlights, also known as smart headlights, can shine more light onto the road ahead without blinding the drivers of oncoming cars. But until now, an outdated federal regulation meant that the headlights couldn’t be used in the U.S., even though the technology has been available for years in Europe and Canada.

That’s about to change, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which announced this week that it will be issuing a final rule allowing automakers to install ADB headlights on new vehicles. The announcement follows a requirement in last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directing NHTSA to make ADB headlights legal, a move that Consumer Reports applauds. The change has been in the works since Toyota originally petitioned NHTSA in 2013 to change federal regulations to allow ADB headlights.

MORE ON HEADLIGHTS

“These advanced headlights will probably help make our roads safer, and we’re glad to see NHTSA take action after a long delay,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR. 

Adding ADB headlights to cars is likely to make it easier for drivers to see at night, says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center and head of the headlight testing program. “ADB headlights provide levels of seeing distance more like high beams, but they limit glare for oncoming vehicles and the vehicle ahead of you,” she says. Stockburger also says that high beams are underutilized, and that ADB headlights could help ensure that drivers have enough roadway illumination in situations where they really need it. 

Some ADB smart headlights use physical shutters within the headlamp assembly to shade oncoming cars from glare, like an umbrella blocking the sun. Others are made up of multiple LEDs and can selectively disable some of them so the light doesn’t shine directly at drivers in front or behind a car.

A 2019 AAA study found that ADB headlights consistently provided better illumination (as much as 86 percent) than standard headlights in the presence of an oncoming vehicle. And for oncoming drivers, ADBs produced about the same amount of glare as traditional low-beam headlights while providing the benefit of additional illumination.

Based on our testing, CR estimates that it takes a car about 308 feet to stop from 60 mph for something in the road, taking into account driver reaction time. ADB headlights can provide up to 250 feet of additional illumination beyond average low beams, which could mean the difference between a collision and stopping safely, especially at higher speeds, Stockburger says. “Fatality rates for drivers and pedestrians are higher at night than during the day,” she says, “so any advance in lighting is an advance in safety.”

Audi HD matrix LED headlight - predicted cornering light
ADB headlights can adjust their beams to illuminate the road without shining glare at other drivers.

Illustration: Audi Illustration: Audi

Even with the new rule, it’s unclear how soon drivers will start seeing ADB headlights on U.S. roads. And they probably won’t come cheap. On the cars that AAA tested in 2019, the ADB-compatible headlights cost $3,400 to $6,600 more than traditional headlights. 

Some manufacturers, including Audi, told us that vehicles they’ve already sold in the U.S. have had hardware for ADB installed; it just needs to be activated. It isn’t clear if the regulation allows recent models with existing hardware to be activated with ADB, because the language is focused on new vehicles. NHTSA hasn’t responded to our request for clarification.

An Audi spokesperson, Jacob Brown, says the automaker is reviewing the NHTSA standard to see how it compares with European standards. “Audi of America is pleased about the amendment that opens our path toward bringing adaptive driving beam headlights to U.S. customers,” the automaker said in a written statement.

Aaron Fowles, a Toyota spokesman, told CR that the automaker won’t comment on when ADB headlights will start appearing on Toyota vehicles, but he provided the following written statement: “As the original petitioner, Toyota appreciates NHTSA issuing this final rule, allowing automakers to install adaptive driving beam headlights on new vehicles. We look forward to reviewing the final rule and continuously working with NHTSA and other stakeholders towards further improving motor vehicle safety.”

Wallace says that changing the ADB headlight rule is the first of many changes that NHTSA needs to make in the near future. “This move should be just the start,” he says. “We encourage the agency to roll out a wide range of improvements to auto safety rules in the coming months, and act with urgency to reduce the terrible toll of road crashes in our country.”

Audi e-tron Sportback: digital matrix LED headlight
An Audi vehicle with ADB headlights.

Photo: Audi Photo: Audi


Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.