FEB 05th 2016

Axon's Automotive Anorak – Blinded by the lights

Audi Q7

Wow, February already, and unbelievably 2016 is more than a month old! I hope you’ve had a dazzling start to 2016. I certainly have. Almost too dazzling, literally!

Just a few days into the New Year, I was out driving a Lotus Elise at night on some dark, damp, unfamiliar country lanes. With an inefficient demister, the windscreen slightly fogged-up, and the drizzle keeping the wipers busy, I rounded a tight bend, only to be temporarily blinded by an SUV coming the other way, causing me to almost hit a huge concrete telegraph pole.

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The Q7 SUV wasn’t on full beam, but with its state-of-the-art hi-tech LED Xenon lighting being at the exact same height was my head in the low-slung Lotus, the unnecessarily bright lamps forced me to look away for a moment, almost causing me to crash. Had the Audi’s LEDs been on full-beam, a head-on with the poorly positioned street furniture could have been a real possibility.

Whilst I appreciate how the recent advances in vehicle lighting technology improve night time visibility for the driver, I have a real concern for the safety of fellow road users who are increasingly being dazzled and distracted by the modern lighting found today on an increasing number of cars.

BMW 7-series

For example, one of the pioneering safety features of the new BMW 7-Series is its ‘Laserlight’ headlamps – a world first in lighting technology – enabling the driver to have an improved, clearer view of the road in the dark, which is laudable, providing other road users are not distracted or momentarily blinded.

Ever since Saab invented daylight running lamps for its Swedish-market 99 models in 1969, later followed by Volvo and others, this important safety aid has helped to improve the safety of fellow road users, especially on motorcycles and bicycles. 

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However, now automatic day light running lamps – usually fitted to the front LEDs only – are often bright enough to illuminate a suburban road with street lights, causing drivers to increasingly forget to actually turn their lights on, making them blissfully unaware that the rear of their steed is bathed in total darkness, until they are rear-ended by a vehicle following that didn’t spot them until the last moment.

Lights that turn off or dim when the indicators are used (as now found on various Bentleys, Audis, etc), can be equally distracting for fellow road users, as can the new fashion for cornering lights when turning.

What were they thinking of too in the 1990s with SUV tails lights (earlier Discoverys, Suzuki Vitaras, Mitsubishi Shoguns, Isuzu Troopers, Daihatsu Fourtracks, etc) where the actual lamps were set far too low down in the rear bumpers, and often obscured by mud, while the light clusters where often blanked out or blocked off completely!  I’m amazed that this sort of vehicle homologation legislation was allowed, given how tough the authorities are on most other vehicle safety-related legislation.

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I thought thankfully this nonsense has now deceased, until I followed a brand new second-generation Mini Clubman the other evening.  The new Clubman is a fun, stylish estate, but one which confusingly has its break lights totally separated from the rear lamps, making it seem like the Mini’s driver is putting the rear fog lamps on and off each time he or she breaks. 

On the subject of rear fog lamps, so beloved of the middle land hoggers on the motorway who seem oblivious to the fact they are distracting and endangering everyone else, despite have a glowing warning light on the dash, how about fitting a buzzer to all vehicles to warn the driver every 10 minutes or so that the rear fogs are on?

Okay, perhaps I’m being fastidious, as naturally we must applaud the fact that vehicle lighting technology has moved on in leaps and bounds over the years, from the very first gas-burning acetylene lights of 1898.  The 20th century brought us the first electric headlamps, pioneered by Peerless in 1908, with the first twin-filament lamps appearing in 1924. 

By the early 1950s we saw twin headlamps on various American machines, plus a load-sensitive headlamp levelling system on the advanced 1954 Panhard Dyna Z.  The facelifted 1968 Citroen DS popularised turning headlights, first seen on the ill-fated Tucker Torpedo 48 (with one swivelling Cyclops lamp), with Saab introducing the first headlamp wash/wipe system in 1971, the same year that the halogen bulb headlamps were launched (on a VW Beetle of all things!).

In 1986 BMW pioneered the first reflector headlamps on its range-topping 750iL model, with the 7-Series being the first car to be equipped with high-intensity ‘xenon’ lamps in 1991.  Lexus piped BMW and others to the post in 2007 with the first light emitting diode (LED) headlamps in its 7-Series rivalling LS 600, with Maserati claiming a first in 1998 for its LED ‘boomerang’ tail lamps on the 3200 GT Coupe.

As for the future, light units are liable to become smaller and more integrated, to help improve aerodynamics and pedestrian safety.  They will almost certainly become even brighter too, but hopefully with improved diffusers so as not to distract and endanger the safety of fellow roads users please – like the clever two-way sat nav and TV screen combo used in many of the latest Range Rovers.  The future’s bright.  Just not too bright I hope…

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