Seeing the Light in the World of Headlights

The Automobile Magazine Four Seasons 2017 BMW M2 carries—well, doesn’t carry—two interesting items on its equipment list: variable light decoding (08S4), and decoding for no-dazzle high beam (05AP). Decoding means that those two features are erased from the car. They’re removed from the U.S-spec M2. Enthusiasts aren’t particularly happy when European features fail to make the trip to the U.S. market. If the countries of high taxes and fuel prices are able to enjoy trick headlights, why can’t us Yanks have the same vision-enhancing technology? I decided to get to the bottom of this strange matter of International lighting intrigue.

The 2017 M2 comes standard with adaptive Xenon headlights. Adaptive denotes that the lights swivel when you turn the steering wheel. Adding the $1400 Executive Package brings along a host of extras including automatic high beams. Tap a button on the end of the left-hand steering column stalk and a camera reads traffic, deciding automatically when to turn on or off the high beams. But European buyers gain the two additional features mentioned above. Variable light distribution changes the pattern of the low-beam headlights based upon road speed and conditions: a shallow and wide output at low speeds, a foul weather-friendly setup when the fog lights are activated, and a longer beam at higher speeds. No-dazzle high beam utilizes the auto high-beam camera, but the Euro feature gives each headlight independent movement, allowing the high beam or beams to stay on even when other cars are present. The feature provides a “tunnel” for other cars so glaring light isn’t cast into oncoming drivers’ eyes. This BMW video explains the system in excellent detail:

Through the wonders of a computer, an OBD2 cable, and free software off the Internet, I added—“coded”—both Euro features to our Four Seasons BMW M2. The result was quite amazing. The stock adaptive Xenon headlights are very good but the not-for-the-USA extras bring extra magic to the party. All you need to do is tap the ‘auto’ button on the column stalk and the car automatically handles all the lighting for you. Instead of simply systematically dipping to low beams when other vehicles are around, the headlights individually move around cars—both approaching vehicles and cars you’re following. Not once did I get flashed by other drivers for blinding them with the M2’s headlights.

But it’s not that simple, unfortunately. Corresponding with BMW USA, I realized that I may have been an annoyance to other drivers despite not getting any flashing feedback. That’s not something I’m especially proud of. “There are two primary reasons why U.S-spec vehicles are decoded for no-dazzle high beams and variable light distribution,” said BMW North America spokesperson, Hector Arellano-Belloc. “First, ‘adaptive driving beams’ (the industry-standard term for the Euro features) are prohibited under FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard) 108,” said Arellano-Belloc. “There is currently a petition for rule makers to try to get these systems allowed but there’s no timeline available on whether it will be approved or not. The second reason these systems are decoded in the U.S. is because the U.S. requires a different beam pattern for headlights than in Europe. This means that the physical hardware (bulbs, reflectors, lenses, etc.) are different for headlamps in Europe and the U.S.” The latter reason explains why I may have been blinding other drivers after coding the Euro features despite the trick electronics. As soon as I received Arellano-Belloc’s reply, I returned the M2 back to the stock U.S. headlight setup.

This experience has opened my eyes in the world of headlights. The output of the beams on the BMW M2 is impressive with or without the Euro setup, but clearly better with the Euro setup. Driving a slew of other cars at night since the BMW coding adventure, I’ve paid more attention to just how good and bad various headlight systems are in use. I’ve also started playing around with the headlight adjustment under the hoods of my personal cars and friends’ vehicles, and I’ve found some automobiles are shipped from the factory with beams shining too low (or high), compromising vision. It’s not always easy to experience the headlights while test driving a car you’re interested in purchasing but, if you can, I highly recommend it. Just keep in mind that most headlights can be adjusted, and that simply cleaning and polishing the lenses can help, especially on older cars. Also, traditional halogen bulbs degrade over time, so replacing them (always in pairs) even if they haven’t failed is a good idea for obtaining maximum headlight performance.

Lighting technology continues to evolve. Xenon headlights trumped halogen, and now LED technology is making huge strides, even on lower-priced models. The LED headlights on my 2017 Toyota 86 are very impressive, for example. There’s also laser light, a fresh option on the 2019 Audi R8. The trick Star Wars-esque lighting feature first launched in the U.S. on the limited-edition 2017 Audi R8 Plus Exclusive (only 25 cars were produced). Let’s hope the U.S. government gets on board with allowing even more of the latest technology, helping manufacturers take full advantage of the same features on our side of the pond as our European counterparts currently enjoy.


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