What Do the Smart Headlights Recently Approved by the NHTSA Do?

In February, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that vehicles on U.S. roads will now be allowed to use advanced headlights, also called “adaptive driving beams.” It’s a car safety move that will improve nighttime driving for many in the future. It will also help prevent crashes that result from poor visibility. So, what can these new smart headlights do, and how did they get approved?

Toyota petitions the NHTSA

Car using their headlights as the sun sets at night in Reading, Pennsylvania
Car headlights at night | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

In 2013, the Toyota Motor Corporation filed a petition with the NHTSA to allow the use of smart headlights systems on U.S. roads. The adaptive driving beams systems (ADB) use sensors to automatically adjust the beams of light. They can provide improved illumination without the glare that can briefly impair the vision of other drivers.

The same headlights have been used in Europe for over a decade. They’re also allowed in Canada, Japan, and other countries, according to Reuters. After Toyota, both BMW and Volkswagen filed similar petitions to use the lights on their U.S. vehicles.

These smart headlights haven’t been approved for use up to now because they didn’t meet the U.S. standards for low beam maximum levels. Thanks to the infrastructure law signed by the Biden administration in November, the NHTSA had to make a final ruling on allowing advanced headlight use by late 2023.

According to the NHTSA, the rule will improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians by making them more visible to drivers at night. It will also help avoid crashes by better illuminating animals and other potential hazards along the road.

Since 2010, pedestrian deaths in the U.S. are up 45%. There were 6,236 pedestrian deaths amounting to one in six traffic deaths in 2020. Data from the NHTSA revealed that 72% of pedestrian deaths and 51% of driver deaths happen at night. Interestingly, nighttime driving only accounts for about 25% of total miles traveled. 

Smart headlight capabilities

These new smart headlights can help improve down-road visibility without putting off a blinding glare for oncoming vehicles, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, by way of Reuters’ reporting. The group represents almost all major automakers.

Current car systems automatically switch from high beams to low beams. The smart headlight systems rely on cameras, data-processing software, headlamp hardware, and sensors to detect oncoming and preceding vehicles and adjust the beams for you.

Thousands of complaints about headlight glare have been sent to the NHTSA over the last 40 years. The introduction of halogen lights in the late 1970s and high-intensity discharge lights in the 1990s, in particular, had concerned consumers pleading with the agency to take action.

The pros and cons of smart headlights


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While the automatic high-beam headlights systems we have now are good, they’re limited in what they can do, according to AutoWeek. In well-lit suburban settings with lots of streetlights, they can misinterpret the situation’s needs and select high beams when they aren’t needed. They can also make rapid shifts between high and low beams, which isn’t good for visibility.

These problems are eliminated with smart headlights. ADB systems can better read the road and surrounding conditions and provide light only when necessary. Instead of an abrupt shift from low to high beams, an ADB system adjusts the brightness and shape of the headlights to best suit the situation.

ADB systems also provide better visibility in other warranted situations like fog and rain. The smart headlights find an appropriate setting in those situations so you can concentrate on driving. 

If there are any cons to these new smart headlights, it’s that they will be a premium, and therefore costly, feature. At first. If you have the money to buy a premium vehicle with this feature or to select a higher trim level that offers it, great. Otherwise, it might be some time before the ADB systems are a common standard feature on most vehicles.