US IIHS plans to include headlight tech in Top Safety Pick ratings

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car lights

Automakers looking to earn top safety ratings are peering around the corner to prepare for the next directive from the industry’s de facto safety standard setter. This time, it will involve headlights.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — whose endorsements are so coveted by automakers that they have helped accelerate the adoption of safety technology — is developing a stand-alone ratings program for headlights, with the first batch of results due out next year, David Zuby, the IIHS’ chief research officer, told Automotive News.

If all goes well, Zuby says, a good performance on the headlight assessment will become a requirement for a vehicle to earn the institute’s highest safety rating, Top Safety Pick+, as early as 2017.

Of the assortment of new lighting technologies hitting the market, it is so-called adaptive headlights that are poised to be the most influential in the insurer-funded group’s new assessments. These are headlights that use a combination of cameras, steering sensors and electric motors to direct a beam of light around corners or bends in the road ahead.

“We’ve studied all of these different innovations to the extent we’re able, and the strongest signal we get back from the data is that the steerable headlights are associated with the largest reductions of crashes reported to insurers,” Zuby said.

“We’ve talked to some automakers who are looking at lighting systems that they weren’t planning on doing for several years … but they’re now looking at accelerating the availability of that technology,” Zuby said.

Fiat, Hyundai and Kia each debuted new or redesigned models with adaptive headlights at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Kia built dynamic bending headlights into the redesigned Sportage compact crossover that goes on sale in February, in part to get ahead of the new IIHS ratings release.

“Everybody is racing to add this technology to their cars,” Orth Hedrick, vice president of product planning at Kia Motors America, said in an interview. “They are upping the ante at the IIHS, and it puts a lot of pressure on the industry to chase a moving target.”

Lower claims

Zuby says adaptive headlights are part of a broader exploration of advanced lighting technologies across the industry. Brighter beams from high-intensity discharge, LED and xenon headlights are displacing the halogen filament bulbs that have dominated the industry for years.

Active headlight technologies are another area of innovation, including the adaptive headlights and high beams that dim automatically when they sense an oncoming vehicle.

Studies of insurance claims by the Highway Loss Data Institute, IIHS’ data research arm, found that Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo vehicles with such adaptive headlights saw up to a 10 percent reduction in property damage liability claims compared with vehicles with fixed-beam headlights.

“It makes sense that if drivers can see better at night, they’ll be involved in fewer crashes at night,” Zuby said.

Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s U.S. product planning chief, said the company’s engineers “identified the varied benefits of adaptive headlights several years ago, and since then, we’ve moved to rapidly adopt them” for Hyundai’s newer products. IIHS’ plans, he said, were not a motivating factor.

The prospective update to the IIHS standard would be a boon for suppliers such as Valeo, Koito, Stanley, Magneti Marelli and Hella.

These suppliers already have products on the shelf to serve the U.S. market. That’s because European automakers began using adaptive headlights more than a decade ago. BMW introduced adaptive headlights for the 7-series sedan in 2003, for example, and Mercedes and Audi introduced swiveling headlights designed by Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. a year later.

The systems have evolved in recent years. In earlier systems, a headlight’s control unit calculated the road’s curvature by analyzing the vehicle’s speed, steering angle and yaw rate. Later, automakers added forward-facing cameras to detect a road’s twists and turns.

European automakers also are equipping their vehicles with self-dimming high beams, noted Steffen Pietzonka, Hella’s global marketing chief for automotive lighting.

“For midsize and premium vehicles, you won’t find a model that does not have at least one option for dynamic functionality” in the headlights, Pietzonka said. “It’s widely accepted.”

Audi barred

Europe’s auto industry has been at the forefront of headlight advances because regulators there have been quicker to approve new technology, Pietzonka noted. While swiveling headlights are allowed in the U.S., some of the latest technologies are hung up by U.S. regulations. For example, Audi is barred from introducing its Matrix Beam headlights here; the LED headlights cast a constant high beam but use sensors and cameras to reduce the glare for oncoming drivers.

Source: Automotive News

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