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Audi LEDs just another safety technology we can't have

Automaker's Matrix headlights are the latest example of federal regulations blocking innovations from the U.S.

By Douglas Newcomb Feb 11, 2013 7:15AM

Audi Matrix headlight. Photo by Audi.A longstanding and frustrating tradition in this country for both automakers and automotive enthusiasts is that vehicles that are available in Europe aren’t always for sale here in the U.S.

We’re not just talking about hot car models like the Audi A1, but individual features that don’t pass muster with U.S. regulators for one reason or another -- even though they would clearly increase safety.

The latest example is Audi’s Matrix LED lighting, which the German automaker touted at the recent Consumer Electronics Show and said would be available here in the U.S. sometime in 2013. But, as with other features we can’t have here, federal regulators said, "Not so fast" just last week.

The LEDs used for the high beams in Audi’s Matrix headlights are subdivided into several different segments. These individual LEDs can be independently activated, deactivated or dimmed, and they work in conjunction with lenses or reflectors to adjust light according to environmental situations.

The high-tech headlights also receive input from an onboard camera. When the camera detects other vehicles, sections of the high-beam light can be blocked. They even receive input from the car's navigation system to know what's ahead and automatically swivel, for example, when the car approaches a curve.

But an Audi official told a group of technical experts and regulators at the recent Washington Auto Show that the Matrix headlights don’t fit rules set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for high beams. Under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, “headlights are not allowed to shine in such a dynamic way,” according to Automotive News. It also reported that Audi has asked NHTSA for an interpretation of the standard to determine how the Matrix headlights -- given that they’re designed to make driving safer -- can be allowed in the U.S.

This is just the latest example of how differing vehicle standards in the U.S. and Europe can block safety innovations from coming to this country -- and cause drivers here to miss out on technology that could help reduce accidents. Automatic hazard lights that activate in an emergency braking situation to warn following drivers are common in Europe, for example, but haven’t been allowed here. And a recent advancement in night-vision technology that BMW calls Dynamic Light Spot, which that shines a highly focused beam to warn the driver of pedestrians and animals, has been blocked in the U.S. because of government regulations.

Automotive News said that regulators may eventually allow Audi’s Matrix headlights to be available on cars in the U.S. once they deem them safe. But until the feds interpret rules to allow the headlights to be available here, U.S. drivers will have to be satisfied with a less sophisticated feature, automatic high beams, which simply use a camera to switch the high beams on and off for oncoming cars.

When Audi eventually switches to lasers, it may take much longer for U.S. regulators to make a decision. Automotive News reports BMW is also developing lasers to “offer a distinctive look.” But before laser headlights or taillights are ready for the road, automakers and government officials will need to decide whether a laser diode counts as a "light emitting diode" for regulatory purposes, an Audi representative told Automotive News.

Whatever happens, you can bet we won’t get it first.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Feb 11, 2013 4:32PM

I read through the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108.  In its current form the data is at least 9 years old. Most of the material is based on information dated much earlier than that (decades in some cases). I'd say it's time for a revison that addresses current technology.  A simple revision would not only allow for the use of safer lighting technology but also for lighting thats more efficient.

Not to forgrt....The last I heard, vehicle efficiency was all the rage in both Government and the auto industry.   Maybe that was the point of the author? 


Just be sure to incorporate the old stuff  in there as well... to cover older vehicles of course..... Like R-134 and Ethanol, I don't want an expensive conversion on my hands because I own an older system.   

Feb 12, 2013 4:08PM
Some things never change. In 1975 i put a pair of Cibe quartz halogen lights in my then new ford van. The differance between the stock sealed beams was like night and day.  A week after installing them  i was on the road at night and a Minnesota HP came at me in the opposite lane, he turned around followed me for a mile and then pulled in front of me. He sped up , then slowed down until i was almost on top of his car. I finally signaled pulled over and so did he.  We talked about the lights, he was impressed with how bright they were and yet with the cut off of the lense did not blind him. All cars have them now but then they were illegal. He did not ticket me and actually said he would put a set in his own car. HID lights are the new thing now, but LED lights will surely be a lasting feature. They draw less power than regular lights last longer and can be shaped so small you could place them anywhere.  WAKE UP D.O.T. Progress will not wait for you.  
Feb 11, 2013 12:26PM
Why am I not surprised? The NHTSA just needs to drop the NH to fit right in with the incompetents who "protect" us from ourselves.
Feb 13, 2013 6:04AM

I've seen enough burnt out LED's on Audi's feel that Audi should cease putting them on production models until the bugs can be worked out.. what do you think when you see a $120000 R8 with a burnt out LED.. it definitly makes it feel cheap and not worthy.. Now they want to make the entire headlight system LED?


Feb 13, 2013 12:25PM
Headlights have always been a problem for regulators.  I have a 2002 Ford Ranger that I bought while living in Canada in Vancouver.  Canada has regulated daytime running lights on all vehicles since the mid 1980s.  You can't buy a car, truck, bus, motorcycle, etc. up there that doesn't have them.  Short of kicking them in, I physically cannot turn off my lights when the truck is running.  In the U.S. daytime running lights were never available in on Rangers.  So when I got my Ranger down here they told me because it isn't a feature on a Ford Ranger here, I had to disconnect them.  What's really crazy, which I told them, was that the truck was assembled in Dearborn.  Even crazier is that the only headlight difference between my truck and every Ranger down here is that for Canada they plugged in the lights, wheras here they did not.  All the equipment is there on every Ranger for ever made from about 1986 onward; this I learned from the regional service manager for Ford Western Canada.
Feb 23, 2013 5:06AM
It's about the money ,Honey! The government charges the manufacturers crazy high fees to get every proposed change tested and approved. Once Audi coughs up the cash things will move forward.
Feb 12, 2013 2:39PM
So how is toyota/lexus selling cars with auto highbeam and led headlights?
Feb 11, 2013 8:37AM

Classic.  A useful application of LED's unlike the cheesy LED's that currently reside in the headlight housings of newer Audis.  I know a lot of people like them but count me as one who thinks they look like gawdy ropelites strung on the front of an otherwise attractive looking car.

Feb 11, 2013 9:36AM
Today's lighting engineers are out of their minds; you get tail lights as bright as head lights on the market right now, how irretative that is to follow one at night time?  Engineers, please wake up, if you succeed in blind sight the opposit traffic, don't blame yourself if you get involve in head on accidents because of your own "super bright and offensive" light system. 
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