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Why we can't have better headlights here in the U.S.

Doug Newcomb

It wouldn't be a European auto show if we weren't teased with at least one mainstream vehicle we can't have here. At the Geneva Motor Show last week, the small but vocal contingent of shooting-brake buffs lamented that the Mazda6 wagon won't be coming to our shores, although they can take comfort in the fact that the vehicle won't get the torquey 250-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged gasoline engine we'll get here.

Mercedes-Benz also announced a new headlight technology in Geneva that likely won't be available here anytime soon. It's just the latest in a long line of innovative and potentially lifesaving front-lighting solutions that the federal government doesn't allow in this country due to outdated standards — and a current lack of leadership at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Mercedes-Benz's new Digital Light system that debuted in Geneva uses a computer chip to activate more than a million micro-reflectors to better illuminate the road ahead. The Digital Light headlamps works with the vehicle's cameras, sensors and navigation mapping to adjust lighting for the given location and situation and to detect other road users.

The Digital Light technology also serves as an extended head-up display of sorts by projecting symbols on the pavement ahead to alert drivers to, say, slippery conditions or pedestrians in the road. And it can even project lines on the road in a construction zone or through tight curves to show the driver the correct path.

Digital Light will be available on Mercedes-Maybach vehicles later this year, although like any technology it's bound to trickle down to less expensive vehicles. That is, if we ever get it here in the U.S.

Audi, a leader in automotive lighting, has repeatedly run into snags trying to bring state-of-the-art car headlights to the U.S. The German luxury automaker's recently introduced matrix laser headlight system, which performs many of the same trick as Mercedes-Benz's Digital Light, also isn't legal on U.S. roads.

And five years after the introduction of its matrix-beam LED lighting, which illuminates more of the road without blinding oncoming motorists with brights by simultaneously operating high and low beams, Audi still can't bring that technology to the U.S. either. This is because it doesn't adhere to the inflexible and archaic 50-year-old Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that require all vehicles to have headlights capable of only switching from high to low beams and not blend the two together, which also rules out MB's Digital Light tech.

Headlights aren't the only innovative automotive technology that's been kept out of cars due to the outdated FMVSS. While Cadillac has successfully petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, the enforcer of DOT auto industry rules) to ditch traditional rearview mirrors in favor of a cameras that can provide a much better view, other automakers have hit a roadblock in trying to replace side mirrors with cameras.

Early on, Tesla showed a Model S without side mirrors, and several other automakers have also unveiled concept vehicles that use camera-based side mirror systems that not only provide a better view but also reduce wind resistance to improve fuel economy. But NHTSA has shown no willingness or sense of haste to change FMVSS regulations on front lighting and side mirrors. And more than a year into the Trump administration, NHTSA still doesn't have an administrator to lead the organization.

So while enthusiasts grumble about not being able to get niche vehicles like the Mazda6 wagon here due to the lack of mainstream market interest, technology like Mercedes-Benz Digital Light that could potentially help reduce 37,000-plus traffic deaths (and rising) is blocked by outdated regulations.

And the U.S. continues to be left in the dark when it comes to the latest automotive lighting technology.

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Why we can't have better headlights here in the U.S. originally appeared on Autoblog on Tue, 13 Mar 2018 11:35:00 EDT.