As electric cars become more common and less of a novelty, car makers are on the hunt for the next innovative feature to woo consumers. For Audi, that’s the company’s Digital Matrix LED headlights, which double as video projectors to intelligently illuminate the road ahead.
The DML headlights were a feature first demonstrated about a year ago, but they’re finally available as an option on the 2021 Audi e-tron Sportback and e-tron SUV, although with reduced functionality in the United States until the carmaker can convince regulatory bodies it’s just as safe, and even safer, than regular low and high beams.
The Digital Matrix LED headlights pair a bright set of LEDs with 1.3 million micromirrors in each headlight that can adjust where they’re reflecting and projecting the light up to 5,000 times per second. It’s technology that’s already been used in Texas Instruments’ DLP projectors for years now, but this is the first time the technology has been strapped to the front of the car.
But why? Is this Audi’s attempt to help revive the drive-in movie theater experience given there’s no end in sight for the pandemic? No. The Digital Matrix LED headlights don’t do color, but they can create animations, and if you happen to be parked against a wall, you’ll see the name of your vehicle and the Audi logo projected ahead of you when you start or turn off your vehicle, which Audi refers to as “welcome and exit lighting signatures.” There are actually five animations options to choose from, and while it certainly sounds like a fancy touch for a luxury automobile, that doesn’t quite seem enough to justify the price of what is undoubtedly a pricey option.
On a more practical level, the DML headlights can project what Audi calls a light carpet on the road ahead, illuminating just the driver’s lane until they start to switch lanes, at which point the carpet widens to illuminate both lanes at the same time. The approach limits the spread of the headlights’ beams so as not to blind oncoming traffic. That’s paired with lower beams directed to the sides of the road that can illuminate people and other hazards that may otherwise go unnoticed unless a vehicle’s bright high beams are turned on.
Visible within the light carpet are also a series of chevron arrows that indicate the location of the vehicle’s tires within the lane. It can help to give drivers a heads up that they’re on course to hit a dangerous pot hole, or plow right through an unfortunate pile of roadkill, giving them enough time to gently swerve out of the way. It’s a more nuanced approach to making driving at night safer, and while introducing more electronic components does increase the chance of something breaking or going wrong (fixing a regular headlight is as easy as just swapping in a new bulb), this is a technology that potentially benefits everyone on the road, not just the person behind the wheel of their e-tron Sportback. Hopefully U.S. regulators will eventually give it a chance.