When headlamps first appeared in the late 1880s, each oil-powered lamp was hand-lit. Despite advancements in the century that followed, automotive lighting experts say the current pace of headlamp evolution is unprecedented.
"For many years, headlamps, and vehicle lighting in general, was a commodity item like lug nuts or door lock knobs – legally required, heavily regulated as to their size and shape," says Daniel Stern, a Vancouver-based automotive lighting expert who sits on several technical standards development boards in North America and worldwide, including the Society of Automotive Engineers Lighting Systems Working Group.
"They were very standard items: round and square were the only options. That loosened up a little in the 1980s when we started to get replaceable bulb headlights that were a different size and shape on each kind of vehicle," Stern says. "Then, in the 1990s, we saw the advent of high-intensity discharge headlamps – HIDs, sometimes called Xenons – and that's when we started seeing that blue-white light from headlights instead of the lightbulb-white we saw before. And now the latest thing, of course, is LEDs."
The 2014 Toyota Corolla is the first mass-market vehicle that comes with LED low-beams as standard equipment. At the high end of the market, BMW, Mercedes and other luxury auto makers have been blazing new trails with styling that was not possible with older lights. With LEDs, each side might have an array of 10 small optics, whereas before there were generally just one or two lamps on each side of the car.
There are benefits and downsides to LED headlamps. Some are high performing, and LEDs themselves have a long-rated lifespan, but just as they're comparatively expensive for auto makers to install as first equipment, LED headlamps are also expensive for vehicle owners to replace.
"And more than that, with the replaceable headlight bulbs there are about 15 types and they've pretty much all been available for years, and will be for the foreseeable future," says Stern. "But LEDs are evolving extremely fast, and the ones that were current just two or three years ago are now considered quite obsolete.
"Which raises interesting questions: what about parts availability? Probably not a problem with a car that's three or five years old, but what about 10 years? What's going to happen to a 10-year-old car that not only are the headlamps no longer made, but the LEDs inside the headlamps are no longer made? That really hasn't been grappled with yet by the industry," Stern says.
Most Canadian vehicles have almost completely U.S.-spec lighting systems. The major difference is that daytime running lights, required in Canada, are optional in the United States. Canada also permits headlamps that meet the international United Nations specification – formerly called the European spec.
"That's been the case since the mid-seventies," Stern says. "Canada said, 'We're going to accept the worldwide standards or the U.S. standard.' But there's one recent and interesting exception – one thing you can do with LEDs that you couldn't very easily do with previous types of lamps is you can have an adaptive, intelligent headlamp.
"It's typically a camera-driven system, and the camera keeps track of the position of other road users in front of you. It's sometimes called a glare-free high-beam or an adaptive driving beam. Essentially, you drive around all the time with high-beams, but all the people in front of you are selectively shadowed out of the beam. So the camera detects, say, three cars in front of you, three corresponding shadows are created in the beam so those drivers aren't dazzled by high-beam glare," Stern says.
"Those intelligent, adaptive systems are allowed under the UN standard, and they're gaining popularity fast in Europe, but they're not allowed in Canada, because it would create some difficulty for the North American auto makers," Stern says. "The U.S. regulatory agency is working on it. For now, Canada says, 'Even though we allow European headlamps, we do not allow these particular European headlamps.'"
So, when does Stern think adaptive headlights might be permitted here?
"That's a good question. The U.S. agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], seems to have put that issue on something of a fast-track because there is evidence in the States, particularly from a group called the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, that advanced lighting systems really do make a safety difference and reduce the rate at which equipped vehicles are involved in crashes.
"I would hope that within two years they would allow the intelligent lights, but it might be more realistic to say three or four. I would love to be surprised and have it be one. Certainly, Audi and other auto makers are engaged in a very aggressive campaign to get NHTSA to allow these systems. And once NHTSA says okay, Transport Canada will follow shortly thereafter."
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