FRESH OFF MAKING some bold promises about self-driving cars and setting a US sales record, Audi built on a very good 2017 this week by lighting things up at the Detroit auto show. As in, it showed off a new headlight technology.
Too bad the “Matrix Laser” system, which debuted as part of Audi’s Q8 concept SUV and does everything from highlighting pedestrians to auto-dimming for the sake on oncoming cars, isn’t welcome in the US.
This tech is Audi’s latest push the reinvent the way drivers see the world around them, and its future-heavy name is actually accurate. “Each headlight uses a single laser as the light source, but the beam is broken into a million distinct pixels by the diodes,” says Volker Kaese, Audi’s director of innovation. A small mirror continuously aims the beam to different sections of the matrix to adjust its projection—wide or narrow, high or low, and anywhere in between.
Audi combines the dexterity of its high-res headlights with its sensors’ ability to track cars and carbon-based life forms to pull off some neat tricks. At the simple end of the scale, they steer around turns and selectively dim so they don’t blind oncoming drivers.
The fancier moves include projecting words, graphics. Things like, “STOP,” for pedestrians crossing in front of them if cars are coming in the opposite direction that they may not see, or “Again, we’re really sorry about the whole dirty diesel thing.” (Okay, we made that one up.) Or, more practically, it can project lines indicating the width of the car, so you’re sure you’ve got room to squeeze between that 18-wheeler and the highway barrier. The lights can also spotlight specific bits of the road ahead to make sure the driver sees them, like signs, pedestrians, and animals.
The laser lights are more efficient than LEDs, and the projection system is more effective than a head-up display, Kaese argues. “It’s better for your eyes, because you don’t have to refocus or redirect your vision as you’re driving.”
Because the system can stay permanently in the equivalent of a high-beam mode, tracking other vehicles and dimming as necessary, Audi can eliminate the need for dual high- and low-beam light sources for each headlight. And that’s where the trouble comes in.
Cars sold in the US must obey a rulebook that spans more than a thousand pages and gets very details. One rule: You need separate light sources for high and low beams. (Conventional laser headlights are permitted here, usually supplemented with LEDs for the alternate beam.)
Audi and other manufacturers developing similar high-tech laser headlights are working with US regulators to approve matrix systems, but they’ve got a steep hill to climb. “The United States has very low receptiveness to new lighting technology,” says IHS Markit analyst Christian Müller. “It will permit some things—daytime running lights, directional lighting in turns—but not make them mandatory. And if there isn’t a proven life-safety benefit for a new innovation it’s very hard to change the regulations to even permit things like matrix laser lights.”
Because the manufacturers haven’t yet proven there is significant enough life-safety benefit to a laser-based matrix system, regulatory reworking is a tough sell. Even Europe, more open to updating its rules, waited eight years before allowing single-source lighting. American regulators have only been considering the tech for the last five or so years, so it could be a while before Audi gets its way. “Of course, someone can come along in the government, see the benefit, and make it happen overnight,” Müller says. Maybe Donald Trump’s new secretary of transportation?
Alternatively, Müller says, the carmakers could twist the regulations to sneak the tech in. They made it work for turn-signals that swipe left and right rather than just blink. Facing a requirement stipulating a certain area of the light has to flash, the manufacturers simply made that flashing area the start and end of the swiping movement, giving the illusion of a smoothly gliding light. So perhaps the clever minds at Audi can gin up such a strategy for its Matrix Laser lighting by the time the Q8 comes to market, likely 2018. If not, customers will have to settle for seeing the world the regular way.