They look amazing, but their design serves one purpose only, your safety. Adaptive headlights move up and down, left and right, to enhance the driver's field of view in low-light conditions. They are a great feature we can find on many motor vehicles nowadays. Why are they there, and how exactly do they work? Let's shed some light on this subject.

Headlights come in handy most of all when driving in low visibility conditions. They extend our observation range, making evening and night trips possible, even at high speeds. Before becoming adaptive, they did, however, have some limitations. Headlights could only illuminate the space in front of the car, and when using these strong beams of light, it was very easy to blind other motorists with their glare creating dangerous situations. Something had to change.

adaptive headlights on a Mercedes Benz

Because the conditions on the road change constantly, car manufacturers had to make sure that these radius lights became adaptive. The first problem that they tackled was the issue of too much blinding light when turning the car left and right. Whenever the steering wheel is moved to the left or right, the lights automatically are aimed lower to the ground. And then, new, digital technologies pushed the frontier even further, allowing for intelligence, independent from the driver systems.

Let there be light (around the corner)

Night driving is the most challenging, especially when turning. Headlights provide visibility straight ahead, so especially sharp turns are sometimes almost like stepping into the dark. The solution seems pretty straightforward. Make headlamps traverse towards the direction in which the vehicle is turning.

Simple as it sounds, despite some early experiments, car manufacturers didn't introduce this system until the late 1960s. It was then that Citroen presented its famous Goddess, the DS model, as well as subsequent SM. Both had this cutting-edge technology onboard that allowed light beams to turn left and right, giving drivers the advantage of enhanced visibility in a low-light environment.

New technologies and new possibilities

Led lights on a car at night

More options became available with the onset of light-emitting diode technology in the early 2000s. Pioneered by Lexus and Audi, LEDs gave car manufacturers extended ability to control the beam, directing it precisely where and when needed. An array of advanced sensors became helpful in detecting conditions to switch particular functions on and off, especially recognising other vehicles' head and tail lights.

Adaptive headlights could now change automatically from a low into a high beam and back too. All depending on the vehicle's speed for its enhanced security. And more options were coming. This technology introduced another feature that made travelling by car much safer for all road users.

When outside the city and in a low-light environment, motorists use high beams to gain the advantage of seeing further down the road. The problem is that they often forget to switch them off when there is an upcoming vehicle. It effectively blinds other drivers and makes them prone to potentially fatal mistakes.

Adaptive headlights have a built-in sensor that detects glare from the other road users and switches to low beams if the driver forgets to do it in time. Any person ever blinded by another car's high beams can appreciate the advantage of this solution. Safety on the road, especially at night, is paramount. This technology went as far ahead as to intentionally use "bad pixels" on the LED matrix to dim only some parts of the space in front of the car. Namely, the spot where the other motorist is with the rest still well illuminated, granting superior awareness to the driver of the car. 

An almost adaptive, budget version

The inexpensive, elementary form of adaptive light system has also been available for some time now. It is called the cornering lights, and while it isn't half as handy as the real McCoy, it still makes driving at night time slightly easier.

It includes a module that detects when the car is turning left or right. The system then switches on a swivelling fog light on the respective side. An additional short-range light beam increases safety by making the driver more aware of what awaits around the corner.

Cornering lights are far more affordable than their adaptive counterparts. They often come as a standard (or extra) option on inexpensive small city or family cars. Despite the shortcomings of this technology, it is still an option for those who cannot afford a much expensive car equipped with adaptive lights.

We need widespread adaptive headlights

A car is driving in the dark on a snowy road with adaptive headlights on

Adaptive headlights technology makes roads a much safer place at night for everyone. It gives drivers better situational awareness and reacts to changing conditions whenever motorists forget to switch between low and high beams. The introduction of LEDs, advanced computer algorithms and machine learning made this technology a real game-changer that increases safety by preventing accidents.

Unfortunately, in most cases, adaptive lights are still an expensive extra option when buying a vehicle. Only some expensive executive and luxury cars come equipped with such systems as a standard. And in the case of small city cars or more affordable family vehicles, adaptive headlights cannot be added at all, even in the fully-loaded configuration.

Hopefully, as this technology becomes more widespread, its price reduces significantly. Then efforts could be made for adaptive headlights to become a standard feature for all cars. Despite all of the automotive industry advancements, there are still many road casualties every year. However, we can prevent human error accidents with technology. For this to happen, systems such as adaptive headlights must become more widespread.