U.S. Car Buyers Will Finally Have Access To Adaptive Headlight Technology, As NHTSA Issues Updated Rule

The safety agency published its final rules a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule

NHTSA rule allows for U.S. adaptive headlights — Audi Matrix LED
Audi’s “Digital Matrix” LED headlights can adapt to driving conditions to prevent blinding oncoming drivers, but they haven’t been allowed in the U.S. until now. (Images: Audi, unless otherwise noted)

Finally, U.S. drivers will soon get adaptive headlight technology.

Cars are getting more advanced each and every year, and while safety firms like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have focused on headlight performance in recent years — we’ve been missing a crucial piece of new tech. Adaptive headlights that can actively dim portions of the beams to provide the best illumination without blinding other drivers have existed over in Europe for years, but U.S. regulations prevented automakers from launching the technology here. Now, though, the recently-passed infrastructure bill directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to publish new rules allowing their use within two years.

So why mention it now? The NHTSA actually announced the rule changes and published the final document this week — a full 18 months ahead of schedule. Automakers including Audi, BMW and Toyota — the last of which have been pushing this technology by petition since 2013 — all stand to benefit from bringing adaptive headlights to American roads. What’s more, Audi’s Digital Matrix LEDs and BMW’s full-on Laserlight technology should (hopefully) arrive on U.S.-spec models in the near future.

Amending federal regulations to allow adaptive headlights

The 325-page rule “amends Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 108, “Lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment,” and draws from European regulations (in force since 2006) and Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standards in the process. The U.S. rule more closely follows SAE J3069, which sets more objective standards for evaluating and implementing adaptive headlight tech than the broader European tests.

Since the NHTSA just published final rules Tuesday, automakers are still in the process of figuring out how best to proceed. Audi did ship cars with the necessary hardware, but without the software needed to make full use of its Matrix LED headlight technology. That could be a relatively straightforward change — and could even offer some backwards compatibility for current owners — but it’s not clear how different automakers will adapt their approach to the new regulation just yet. As always, we’ll have to wait, though probably not too long, and see.