Shining the Spotlight on New Laser Headlights

audi laser headlight

This has to be one of the most exciting times ever in the automotive industry. Technology is moving at a quick pace as autonomous driving and other new technologies that will lead to safer roads head from development and into reality. Equally important, the federal government is finally picking up its pace as well to make all of this, well, legal.

One exciting new technology is laser high beam headlights. After being available in Europe, the U.S. is finally giving a few systems the green light for our roads.  They help drivers see further at night and are more energy efficient than LEDs.

The problem with laser high beams has been that they’re too advanced for decades old U.S. headlight laws. They’re part of a new world of self-adjusting headlights that regulators just didn’t anticipate.

A federal regulation enacted in 1968 mandates that all cars must have manually adjustable high and low headlights controlled by the driver. This pretty much nixes any new adapative, autonomous headlight technology that relies on sensors and cameras. Another issue is that new laser headlamps can exceed the brightness standard currently allowed by the NHSTA.

But BMW and now Audi have tweaked their laser Euro-spec systems to skirt U.S. laws until we catch up. (Audi’s Matrix LED adaptive headlights are still illegal here, although the technology is widely used elsewhere.)

In 1983, the feds granted a 1981 petition from Ford Motor Company to allow the first replaceable-bulb, non-standard “Euro” shape aerodynamic plastic lenses.

Laser high beams supplement, but don’t replace, LED low beams.

They produce a focused, bright light that illuminates a wider and longer section of the road. They can also operate in an adaptive manner, minus a driver, using sensors and cameras.

No, they don’t actually shoot out lasers, like you might see in sci-fi movies.

The headlights contain blue laser projectors that merge together to make a single blue beam. The beam then passes through a phosphorous lens or platelet which converts it into a bright white light. You can tell lasers are in use by the blue signature you see in the headlight housing. An integrated camera system monitors the road ahead and automatically adjusts the lights to avoid blinding oncoming cars.

Audi VS BMW laser systems.

Audi recently became the second automaker to bring laser headlights to the U.S. They’ll be offered on a new exclusive edition of the Audi R8 V10 Plus. BMW already offers them on the i8. But both automakers had to make some changes to their Europe-spec systems to get U.S. approval. For instance, BMW’s headlights will automatically turn off for oncoming cars, instead of dimming.

  • Audi’s high beam lasers activate at speeds of 40 mph or above when conditions permit. They have a range of around 1600 feet, twice the distance of led high beams.
  • BMW says its lasers are ten times more intense than conventional lights and illuminate up to about 2000 feet.

Better headlights equals safer roads.

One thing is for sure. Better,“smarter”, advanced headlight technology can’t get here soon enough. Several recent tests conducted by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found headlights lacking on many SUVs, sedans and trucks. There were only a few good ratings in the entire bunch while most vehicles in all groups received marginal or poor ratings. The IIHS launched its headlight ratings after finding government standards allow for a huge variation in illumination.

The bottom line is that better headlight technology will mean safer roads for us all.

Photo Credit: Audi
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