Adaptive headlights swivel to better illuminate roads during cornering.
For years, engineers have worked on the ability to improve a driver's vision at night. As such, headlight technology has improved dramatically. Not long ago, sealed-beam headlamps that conformed to a standard established by GE and other lamp manufacturers were the only choices in North America. The most dramatic change in headlight technology was brought about with the development of small, powerful, projector lamps, and today, halogen and Bi-xenon (also known as High-Intensity Discharge) headlights give greater visibility than ever.
Further adding to their safety credentials, the new headlamps are small enough to swivel according to the direction of the car. Steerable headlights are not new--Citroen added a movable center lamp to its headlights in the sixties--but today's intelligent lamps rely on detailed steering and speed inputs to illuminate corners accurately and without blinding other road users.
In addition to improvements in headlight design, other more advanced technologies have been developed to improve drivers' night vision. In 2000, Cadillac enlisted the services of defense contractor Raytheon to develop Cadillac Night Vision, a system that used heat-sensing technology to spot objects that are warmer than their surroundings and project the results in a heads-up display. In theory, this technology has merit. But in practice, the range is limited and the information displayed is small and busy, factors that could cause distraction from simply looking ahead on the road with good headlights. Lexus picked up the technology on a few models, but there's little sign of the scheme taking off as an option.
More recently, Mercedes-Benz has developed the idea of enhanced nighttime driving visibility with a system it calls Night View Assist. The system uses infrared light from special lamps to illuminate as far as 500 feet of the road ahead. The images spotted are reflected back to an infrared camera and relayed to a display in the instrument cluster. According to Mercedes, its system allows the driver to detect pedestrians, cyclists, parked cars, or other obstacles much earlier than would otherwise be possible.
Mercedes' infrared Night View Assist monitor gives drivers a better idea of obstacles in the road after dark.
Another benefit of heat- and light-sensing systems is that they do not bother oncoming motorists. Obviously, there's nothing better than lots of big lamps to make the road look like high noon. But if the oncoming vehicle is blinded, the result is hardly safe.
While safety advances take place at the front of the car, the rear end of many cars are also getting a safety-tech makeover. In many upscale models, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are replacing conventional bulbs for tail and brake light chores. LEDs are brighter and illuminate quicker than traditional lamps, and their intensity can easily be manipulated. A few automakers have proposed , which use brake lights that increase in intensity as pressure increases on the brake pedal. And Mercedes-Benz is working on a system that rapidly flashes brake lights during an abrupt stop to increase visibility of the danger. However, such technologies have yet to pass government safety standards, so it will be a while until they hit the mainstream.