It is hard to believe that automobile headlights started out as little more than lanterns hung from the front of early motor cars. Some headlights even had to be lit by hand with a match before hitting the road at night. Today’s headlights are more than just a way to fight back the darkness, some are part of a larger comprehensive vehicle safety system. Let’s take a look at the recent advances in modern headlight technology and what it means to your driving experience in the future.
The first adaptive headlights were actually found on high end luxury cars of the 1920s and 1930s. “Pilot Ray” headlights were a popular accessory and were able to turn with the steering linkage. Later the 1948 Tucker Torpedo would use a similar system. But today’s automakers have included more tricks than just a long rod hooked to a steering link. Headlights that can follow the road are now available on many mainstream production vehicles. But there’s a new advancement on the horizon.
Adaptive driving beam (ADB) headlights have been available across Europe and Canada for years. In February of 2022 the U.S. The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made it possible to bring this new technology to roadways across the United States. These new smarter headlights make the earlier steering following headlights look downright primitive. ABD headlights are able to analyze the area around the vehicle and focus more light on empty areas. They also reduce the chance of blinding oncoming drivers by focusing less light on areas of the road with more objects. The result is the ability to light up things in the distance without blinding everyone else as a byproduct.
Unfortunately ABD headlights can add thousands of dollars to the sticker price of a vehicle. And depending on how they are engineered the days of a simple headlight bulb swap could be out the window. But like many other leaps in automotive technology costs will likely go down as the adoption level increases and time goes by.
While not widely available, automakers like BMW have already equipped vehicles with laser beams for headlights. But not in the way you picture in your head like a James Bond villain. These headlights use a highly efficient and bright laser as their light source and bounce it through mirrors to the headlight lens itself. The result is a much brighter light which is tightly focused on the road far ahead. BMW’s system also uses adaptive driving beam technology to keep light where it is needed most. Car buyers in Europe have been able to choose this option for a few years and soon it will be coming to the United States thanks to recent changes in the laws.
Recently Ford Europe unveiled a prototype high-resolution headlight system that does more than just light up the road, it actually projects information for the driver onto the road itself. This helps reduce driver distraction by keeping eyes focused ahead. Think of these new headlights as part light bulb, part movie projector. Information such as speed limit, weather information, even navigation directions can be displayed right on the road itself.
Mercedes-Benz started offering a similar system several years ago and made it available on its top-tier vehicles like the S-class and Maybach. But Ford’s entry into this space signals a potential for adoption for normal production vehicles.
The point of these high-tech headlights is to improve driving safety for not only the people inside the car but the ones on the outside. When coupled with ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems) these technologies have the capability of drastically reducing accident rates and vehicle damage in the coming years. The tradeoff is the current cost and potentially more expensive/complicated repair processes. Modern systems like these typically require programming and precise calibration to function correctly, which will likely be the realm of highly trained technicians for a while. But this is no different than any other previous leap forward in the automotive world which brings the entire driving fleet into the future gradually.
Check out all the lighting parts available on NAPAOnline, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on modern headlight technology, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.
With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.