Audi AG customers in Europe, for another $3,000, will be able to buy A8 sedans with headlights that see around corners and illuminate more space without blinding oncoming motorists.
"Extremely trick," Car and Driver magazine called the lights after Audi showcased them at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
A demonstration, though, is the only US setting in which Audi can show off the lights, because a 45-year-old regulation prohibits them in the second-largest auto market after China. "The lighting technology changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years," Stephan Berlitz, Audi's head of lighting innovations, said in an interview. "It's difficult to do all these innovative things in this regulation from 1968."
Volkswagen AG's luxury unit is among automakers and lighting manufacturers pushing to change the rule requiring headlights to switch between low-and high-beam settings, a distinction the self-adjusting Audi lights eliminate. Industry representatives are preparing to meet with US regulators as a step toward changing the standard.
The headlight rule, which has been updated over the years, is one of the oldest in US auto safety, predating the 1970 creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Headlight technology has advanced since then from sealed beams to halogen to xenon and now to light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. While more expensive than older forms of lighting, LED lighting lasts longer, generates less heat and uses less power.
While NHTSA officials said they're receptive to the new technology, the agency isn't convinced LED lighting improves safety. Rear-end collisions increased in most models that switched to LED brake lighting from incandescent lamps, the agency said in a report last month.
Audi, based in Ingolstadt, Germany, developed its lights and worked with suppliers including Hella KGaA Hueck & Co. The lights will debut as an option on the A8, which starts at $72,000 and ranges up to $134,500, Audi of America President Scott Keogh said at the Washington Auto Show in January.
Audi expects the lights to be available in non-US markets next year, said Brad Stertz, a US-based spokesman.
The so-called matrix-beam headlights are the first to use multiple LEDs to allow drivers to essentially have high beams on at all times.
Cameras and sensors direct the LEDs to turn off or dim in response to what's ahead of them, creating a changing series of lights and shadows to improve visibility.
"Lighting technology has come from having a lighting component like a headlamp that you install in the car to a system that is a combination of light sources sometimes combined with camera-sensors and data processing," said Bart Terburg, automotive regulations manager for Osram GmbH's North American unit Osram Sylvania. Osram is the lighting unit of Siemens AG.
Terburg is chairman of the lighting systems group for SAE International, a standards-setting group of automotive engineers.
The lights would enhance safety as well as profits, with Audi getting euro 2,000 to 3,000 ($2,605 to $3,908) selling its packages, Berlitz said. US approval could also create opportunities for suppliers including Valeo SA, Koito Manufacturing Co Ltd and Stanley Electric Co Ltd.
Cars sold in the US increasingly include advanced headlights, according to auto researcher Edmunds.com, based in Santa Monica, California. For the 2013 model year, 165 models have standard xenon high-intensity discharge lights or LEDs, according to data compiled by Edmunds. Another 95 come with them as options, out of 332 models sold in the US this year.
Audi and other automakers including General Motors Co and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) have a lot at stake because customers are willing to pay for lighting design and style, said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.
"People with extra disposable income who value those aesthetics are the ones buying that standalone option," Anwyl said in an e-mail. "But, most people who have upgraded lighting get it as part of a technology package. Automakers bundle options that people want with new features that people don't know they want."
Lighting options can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to the price of a vehicle. Chrysler Group LLC's Dodge Dart has a light option for $395 while Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc's Range Rover comes with a $31,000 "autobiography package" that includes fancier lights.
Consumers "like the way they look," Anwyl said of new headlights. "They're considered jewelry, so if you can create a sexier design they can help with sales. Take those headlights from the 60s and put them on cars today. They'd look pretty funny."
Another attraction is that LED lighting may improve fuel economy, he said. "Just a sliver, but every sliver counts," he said.
Light-emitting diodes have been around for decades. For years, they had little commercial use beyond the red lights for alarm clocks and calculators. Researchers opened up more applications by learning how to coat blue diodes with phosphor to make the light white.
More than 1 million vehicles have been equipped with LED brake lights since GM's Cadillac DeVille made the switch for the 2000 model year.
NHTSA officials plan to meet with SAE representatives, who include suppliers, automakers and academics, about the headlight standard in the next few months.