One of the big issues in the US-EU trade talks is supposedly going to be "regulatory trade barriers." Everyone agrees there are significant economic gains to be had by eliminating these barriers. And I can imagine there are. But one problem is, it is not really clear what people have in mind by "regulatory trade barriers." I've seen widely divergent types of government measures included in this conversation.
One of the things I've been working on is clarifying the possible barriers that might be addressed. At first glance, this seems like a good candidate:
The headlights on the forthcoming Audi (VOW) A8 sedan can illuminate around corners and throw brighter-than-average beams. They’re also smarter, adjusting automatically to traffic, pedestrians, and road conditions. “Extremely trick,” admired Car and Driver magazine. Audi plans to put the sedans into showrooms around the world this year. U.S. drivers likely will have to wait longer for models equipped with the headlights. That’s because a 1968 regulation requires that headlights switch between two settings: high and low.
Audi’s so-called matrix-beam headlights, an optional feature, are more complex than that. They’re made up of numerous LED bulbs that dim or brighten individually based on what cameras and sensors in the car see ahead. The system allows drivers to ride with some high beams on at all times without blinding others on the road. Say there’s a pickup truck in front of the Audi; one or several of the Audi’s bulbs flip off, while other high-beam bulbs continue to light up the lower areas in the Audi driver’s line of sight.
The company is gearing up along with Mercedes-Benz (DAI), BMW (BMW), and General Motors (GM) to lobby federal lawmakers to update the headlight rule so it allows for automated features. “Lighting technology changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Stephan Berlitz, Audi’s head of lighting innovations. “It’s difficult to do all these innovative things in this regulation from 1968.”
In an e-mail, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland says he’ll hear out the carmakers’ requests. But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, says the agency doesn’t generally change a regulation unless manufacturers show a proven safety benefit backed up by studies. The lobbying push could be even tougher at a time of budget cuts due to the sequester, she says. “A lighting system that dims, I’m not sure that’s going to be No. 1 on their list.”
Mere details here:
But the system that Audi is developing is not allowed under rules set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Berlitz said last week at a gathering of technical experts and regulators during the Washington Auto Show.
Under the U.S. regulation, known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, headlights are not allowed to shine in such a dynamic way.
Perhaps it was an effort to prevent old high beams from being too distracting. But not too long ago, Audi asked NHTSA for an interpretation of the standards to figure out whether its new design – clearly an effort to make driving safer -- would be acceptable.
This is just one of many areas where the United States and Europe have different standards. Automakers routinely spend millions of dollars (or euros) to reengineer vehicles for sale in both markets, and have pushed for trade deals that would knock down some of the differences.
For the time being, Americans will have to be content with a less ambitious feature that dims high beams for oncoming cars. Audi put the technology into its A8 sedan for the 2013 model year, calling it "high-beam assistant."
American regulators may very well interpret their rules to let matrix beam lighting hit the market -- once they are confident it is safe, of course.
But until the rules are clear, Audi will probably have an easier time introducing the feature in Europe. So will German competitors like Mercedes, BMW and Opel, which have all demonstrated versions of intelligent headlights.
That may frustrate those Americans who complain that Europeans tend to get the first crack at whatever the German car companies have to offer. And they should know that matrix beam lighting is not all that Audi has in mind.
One interesting aspect of this issue is that it seems to be the Americans that are being cautious here. Do our car safety regulators apply the precautionary principle in these matters? And in contrast, why are the European regulators so laid back about this, unlike with food issues? I'm digging around to try to find out more.