The auto industry’s headlights shine better, brighter, farther and more ornately than ever.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Over the past two years, the independent, nonprofit U.S. research group, which represents major insurers in working to reduce losses from vehicle damage and injuries, has released four studies concluding that most headlights on new vehicles it has tested are not good enough.
Foreign and domestic, car and truck, luxury and nonluxury — the list of vehicles ranked with “poor” or “marginal” headlights is diverse.
The criticism comes at an interesting time for the auto industry. Recent car shows reveal that automakers and suppliers are enjoying a golden era of vehicle lighting. Headlamps have become works of art. Thanks to a switch from halogen to brighter LEDs, as well as new capabilities in manufacturing, designers have the freedom to infuse greater detail into their fixtures, incorporating outlines that flow into quarter panels and hood lines.
But the insurance institute isn’t happy. It says headlights often come off the factory line poorly aimed, which can cause glare and renders the move to brighter LEDs null.
In the studies from the insurance institute, whose pronouncements influence consumer buying decisions, only four models out of 100 received a “good” ranking. Forty models received a “poor” ranking because of their headlights.
Last summer, in its testing of headlights on 37 midsize SUVs, 23 ranked “marginal” or “poor.”
During testing, institute engineers measure how far light is projected from low beams and high beams as a vehicle drives straight and around curves. They also measure whether the lights create excessive glare for oncoming vehicles.
Just 15 models qualified for the insurance institute’s 2018 Top Safety Pick Plus award, down from 38 the year before, due largely to its new requirement that a “good” headlight rating is necessary to receive the Safety Pick award. Certain vehicles considered for the Top Safety Pick Plus award were not tested in the original headlight studies.
Matthew Brumbelow, a senior research engineer at the insurance institute, called the industrywide low scores “concerning.” Almost half of the nation’s fatal traffic accidents occur at night, he said, even though less than half of all driving occurs at night. Headlights are one of the “biggest reducers” of crashes, he said.
“A headlight is very basic equipment, but you can think of it as crash avoidance, like automatic braking equipment,” Brumbelow said. “This test is a big one with a range of performance.”
The insurance group is also battling a lack of federal regulation on lighting, such as with headlight aim, and the fact that consumers often only access betterlighting technology in more expensive tech packages.
Morgan: Seeking low-cost options
It’s not clear whether the insurance group’s pronouncements about lights are making any dent in consumer choices. Popular models sometimes score poorly on the headlight tests. Chevrolet’s 2017 Silverado, Colorado and Malibu scored poorly, as did the 2016 Malibu Limited and Trax. The 2018 Equinox managed a marginal score.
Chevrolet declined to comment on the insurance group’s rankings.
The 2017 Ford Escape received an acceptable score, while the 2017 Flex scored in the marginal category, and the 2017 F-150, Edge and Explorer received poor ratings.
While the 2016 Fusion scored marginally, the 2017 model scored poorly.
“Safety continues to be one of the highest priorities in the design of our vehicles,” a Ford spokeswoman said in a statement. “Ford develops headlamps for our vehicles through rigorous real-world driving and customer feedback. Ford is committed to meeting or exceeding applicable federal motor vehicle safety laws.”
Brumbelow said that the insurance group’s headlightstudies are still fairly new to consumers. The first study, limited to midsize cars, was released in March 2016. But he said the organization is testing headlights “more dynamically” than most automakers have previously experienced, and many vehicles have yet to be tested.
“We’ve already seen some manufacturers go back and change their design — or more commonly, tighten up their aiming process at the factory,” Brumbelow said. “There’s still a long way to go, but we’re glad we’ve seen the improvements.”
Pulling grades up
One manufacturer that has improved is Kia. Its vehicles that were tested in the insurance group’s studies, including the 2016 and 2017 Kia Sorento, 2017 Sportage and 2016 Optima, all received poor scores. But the 2017 Optima has since received a good score, and the 2018 Sorento an acceptable score.
In a statement emailed to Automotive News, Kia Motors America said that vehicle safety is a priority for the automaker but said the insurance group’s testing “goes well beyond federal requirements and is only one of the many tests used to evaluate vehicles.”
“Kia will carefully evaluate the results of the new IIHS test procedure, along with the results of all other tests, as part of its commitment to continuous product improvement,” the statement said.
One factor that might help the industry is the decline in the cost of LED lights as they become more prevalent, said Todd Morgan, senior vice president of global product development at Varroc Lighting Systems, a leading global supplier of headlight systems in Plymouth, Mich.
Recently, lighting makers have moved to OLED technology, the industry term for organic light-emitting diodes, which applies an electric current to a series of low-cost organic films.
In September, Varroc moved a step beyond OLED when it introduced a Surface-LED system at a German trade show. Surface LED is an alternative to OLED lamps, and uses ultrathin filters and traditional LED light sources to create high luminescence. The advantage, according to a statement by the company, is that Surface-LED elements “can be designed and produced in curved and 3-D shapes, as well as with multiple colors that enable them to achieve various functions.”
Morgan says the product is “significantly cheaper” than OLEDs, without giving up on the trend to high styling.
“We don’t feel that interesting styling or safety is exclusive only to luxury vehicles,” Morgan said. “We’re working with OEMs to find more low-cost solutions.”
He said the company is getting close to putting the technology on the market in North America.
Morgan believes some of the problems being identified by the insurance group can be easily fixed.
Headlight-leveling technology can be used to re-aim headlights if, for example, a vehicle takes on a heavy trailer that weighs it down in back. That technology is required in Europe but not in the U.S.
Other advancements that tend to receive higher ratings from the insurance group include light-swiveling functions and high-beam assist.
Morgan and Brumbelow agree that adaptive driving beams, which allow high beams to light a driver’s entire path, with the exception of any oncoming vehicles, are the next big advancement. The technology appears in Europe and Japan, but U.S. regulations don’t permit it.
“It’s not yet legal on the road in the United States, which is really a shame because this is a huge advancement in safety,” Morgan said. “Everything is automated.”
NHTSA is now doing research on the use of adaptive driving beams in other countries. It declined to comment on the progress of that research.
While NHTSA does have standard requirements for headlamp beams and limits for maximum and minimum intensity, the group declined to comment on the possibility of headlight regulations for issues such as aim.