Adaptive Headlights See Around Corners

headlights going into a turn
Traditional headlights don't illuminate the road directly in front of you as you head into a corner. Image courtesy of Kenny Louie via Flikr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Adaptive headlights might not technically be able to see around corners, but they're pretty much the next best thing. The basic idea is that traditional headlights always illuminate the road directly in front of a car, which means that they end up shining a light on the shoulder, or into oncoming traffic, whenever the car isn't moving forward in a perfectly straight line. Adaptive headlights are capable of actually rotating with the vehicle, which effectively lights up more the road surface that you actually need to see.

There are a number of different adaptive headlight technologies, but they are all designed to improve the driver’s sight distance at night. Most adaptive headlight systems improve sight distance in corners, but some are also capable of adjusting in response to weather conditions, the presence of other vehicles, and other factors. Various new headlight technologies, including a number of systems similar to modern adaptive headlights, have been implemented throughout the entire history of the automobile, but a resurgence of interest in the technology has occurred in recent years.

How Do Adaptive Headlights Work

Each adaptive headlight system works a little differently since they don’t all perform the exact same functions. Modern directional headlamps, for example, use sensor inputs to determine when the vehicle is turning. The headlights are then rotated with the turn, which illuminates the road in front of the vehicle. Traditional headlights tend to illuminate the side of the road when cornering or shine off the road entirely, which can lead to unsafe conditions.

Other adaptive headlight systems use sensors to determine when the brightness should be adjusted. This saves the driver from having to operate the high beams manually, which allows for a maximum sight distance at all times. Some of these systems can determine how far away other vehicles are and adjust the brightness of the headlamps so that light reaches them without creating glare.

Another adaptive headlight technology was introduced by Volkswagen in 2011. This system uses a dynamic lighting system to prevent the high beams from causing glare. When the system detects another vehicle, it is capable of shading the precise areas of the headlight that would cause the other driver to experience glare.

What Vehicles Have Adaptive Headlights?

Various adaptive headlamp strategies have been employed in vehicles in at least the 1930s. Many early systems had a single, rotating headlight mounted in between the normal headlights. These adaptive headlights were then mounted to the steering linkage so that they would rotate whenever the driver turned the steering wheel. Willys, Tucker, and other automakers used these early adaptive headlight systems.

Modern directional headlamps are available from manufacturers like Toyota, BMW, Opel, and others. These modern systems are typically referred by the term “advanced front-lighting system” (AFS).

General Motors was an early adopter of adaptive technology that could automatically adjust headlight brightness. They offered an automatic dimmer between 1952 and 1988, which could also be found in some Ford and Chrysler models. Other adaptive high beam systems are offered by Volkswagen, Mercedes, and various other automakers.

Do Adaptive Headlights Really Reduce Accidents?

Adaptive headlight systems definitely increase visibility at night, but it’s unclear as to exactly how they reduce accidents. According to one study performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, adaptive headlights result in a 10 percent reduction in overall insurance claims. The same study claims that only 7 percent of police-reported accidents occur during the hours when adaptive headlights are likely to have an impact, so they appear to be useful in other situations.

In any case, real-world accident data suggests that adaptive headlights can have a significant effect on safety. Not sure if adaptive headlights are for you? Consider one of these five headlight upgrades for better brightness and beam patterns.

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