Automakers Need to Get Their Act Together With Headlight Technology – A Rant

During a recent shopping experience for a client, we were looking at the lovable and practical  Volkswagen Alltrak-in the fetching Great Falls Green, no less. However, we made a rather annoying finding. On the otherwise well equipped, mid-trim SE, the standard headlights are halogens. Feel free to pay an additional $2,400 for a package that has better lights. If you want LEDs standard, you need to cough up another $5,000 to get the SEL trim. Consider us disappointed. Even on the pedestrian Toyota Corolla, LED headlights have been standard since 2014.

This is the Year of our Lord 2020, and you’re telling me that a $31,000 European wagon doesn’t come standard with HID headlights? This is something that first became available in the mid 90s on a goddamn Lincoln (more on this in a future blog, stay tuned!). It seems that we are not alone in our ire, as the IIHS really became critical of this a few years ago. Their article lays out the argument for why halogens and poorly aimed or calibrated HID and LED headlights are hazardous to drivers (check it out here).

The premise of the IIHS critique is that base model cars still have, by their metrics, poor performing headlights-typically halogen bulbs that provide lackluster down-road visibility. Often times, the only way to get lighting that provides optimal visibility is to step up to the highest trim of a vehicle, usually at a price of thousands more than the lower trims. Alternatively, the better headlights may be bundled with some option package that alone can cost thousands. Why automakers insist on doing this isn’t some mystery either-they’re just effin cheap. Since their first commercial adaptation 25 years ago, this technology has become so much cheaper and widespread, and it’s an embarrassment to force people to pay, in the case of our Alltrack that made us go down this rabbit hole,  $2,400 for an optional package on the mid-range SE, or $5,000 for them to be standard on the top of the line SEL. Mind you, this option is known as the “Driver Assistance and Appearance” package, which includes other things unrelated to headlights, like bigger wheels, parking and lane keeping assistance, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a few other bits and bobs.

Back to the issue at hand; IIHS uses the Hyundai Kona (annoyingly, another one of our favorites) to illustrate the difference between the base model halogen lights and the top trim LED lights. Based on their testing, the top trim Kona – equipped with LED headlights – provides 450 feet of illumination. Meanwhile, the base trim with halogen lamps provides 220 feet (far short of their claimed ideal 325 foot minimum). At highway speeds, this discrepancy means that the driver of a halogen lamp equipped vehicle would need to drive 25mph slower to avoid an obstacle than the driver of an LED equipped vehicle.

LED headlights on the top trim Hyundai Kona. Photo Credit: IIHS
Halogen headlights on the base model Hyundai Kona. Photo Credit: IIHS

This issue isn’t limited to quirky wagons and hatchbacks – far from it. The IIHS calls out domestic manufacturers as well, especially pickup trucks. As a matter of fact (as of 2018), the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado 1500, and the Colorado/Canyon twins are ONLY available with “poor” rated lights. Meanwhile the upcharge for good headlights is, uh… illuminated with the Honda Ridgeline, the only pickup to achieve a “good” rating but only on the top two trims. The base model Ridgeline comes with “poor” rated halogen units, and the higher trims cost nearly $12,000 more.

Needless to say, this represents a serious safety hazard to both the drivers of vehicles with “poor” rated headlights for reasons of visibility, but also for OTHER drivers on the road facing modern HID and LED lamps with “poor” ratings for causing excessive glare. The whole IIHS critique is well worth a read, and it should really get everyone on board with the need for better headlights across the automotive spectrum. In the meantime, we’ll be over here lamenting the forced upcharge from so many automakers to be able to see at night.