Audi Matrix LEDs: Bright or blight?

In the realm of modern automotive technology, lighting systems may not be the sexiest feature on the block, but there is at least one car company that argues it should be.

Audi recently unveiled Matrix LED headlights, which use dozens of dimming LEDs to provide drivers – and oncoming traffic – with the best visibility possible. Though it insists the technology makes all traffic on the road safer, not all regulators are convinced.

One LED at a time

The lighting system combines 25 LEDs and five reflectors per headlight, which in turn interact with the car's onboard camera system. This allows the 2014 Audi A8, the first Audi to receive the tech, to dim and completely turn off individual LED high beams that are shining toward oncoming traffic.

To do this, the A8's on-board camera detects the position of the oncoming vehicle and the Matrix system dims the LEDs shining on the vehicle and eventually shut them off completely as the car approaches. Once the car passes, the LEDs that were dimmed or shut off illuminate anew. "We can bring light wherever there is no car," Stephan Berlitz, Audi's head of lighting, said.

But that is not Matrix’s only trick. It can also work in tandem with the A8's optional navigation system to brighten parts of road lying around a coming curve before the driver arrives there. Whereas other adaptive lighting systems need to sense the curvature of the road to pivot motorised headlamps, Audi created software and an algorithm to make the process tied to navigation. "The car knows where you want to drive before you see a curve," Berlitz said. Speaking of competitors’ systems, he was not sparing. "We have modern printers – they have old typewriters."

Controversial outlook
Audi's Matrix system has won approval from European regulators, and will debut in the European A8 later this year, but it is still under review by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for use in the United States. The problem, according to Berlitz, is that Audi created something that does not fit within the conventional parameters. He said of NHTSA, "They know high beam and they know low beam, but they can't accept anything in between."

Berlitz conceded that it was difficult to change European road law to accommodate Matrix. Despite being in talks for three years, however, US regulators have not budged. "I think it's going to take much more time," he said.

Audi remains bullish on its system, arguing what it says are its safety-enhancing features. Researching vehicular accidents in Europe, the automaker found that almost half occurred at night, despite there being only 25% of the traffic that the roadways would experience during daylight hours. "It has to be something with the darkness," Berlitz said. "So to bring light to the darkness is the best thing you can do."