Adaptive Headlights Got Their Inspiration from an Oldie

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 07, 2017

Dear Car Talk:

I remember reading about the Tucker automobile that tried to come out around 1950. It had a headlight in the center of the grille that turned with the direction of the steering wheel. It sounds like a good idea to me. Why hasn't that idea been incorporated in other cars? I would appreciate your comments. -- Harry

The 1948 Tucker (called the Tucker 48) had a bunch of innovative safety features, including a perimeter frame for crash protection, a reinforced roof in case of rollovers, a padded dashboard and a shatterproof glass windshield -- all stuff we take for granted today.

But most people remember that "third eyeball," "Cyclops" headlight in the middle of the front grille that turned with the steering wheel.

It was a great idea, and guess what, Harry? You can now get it on an increasing number of new cars, often as optional equipment. Not the third, middle eye, but regular headlights that swivel with the direction of the car. They're called adaptive headlights, and they usually work with small electric motors that can adjust the aim of the headlights about 15 degrees in either direction.

Like everything else these days, they use computer power to figure out how fast the car is going (so your headlights aren't flying back and forth every time you parallel park), the angle of the steering wheel and how quickly the car is turning.

Based on those inputs, the electric motors aim the lights to try to keep their illumination on the road ahead of you while you're making a turn, rather than lighting up the trees at the side of the road. Some cars also use a separate "side"-pointing light for very-low-speed turning, like when you're turning off the road into a driveway. That can be helpful, too.

The adaptive headlights we've tested work really well. They're absolutely a desirable safety feature. I suspect they'll trickle down to more and more affordable cars over the next few years.

But even now, you can get them on certain (usually higher-end trim levels) cars as common as the VW Jetta, all new Minis, the Mazda 3 and 6, the 2017 Hyundai Elantra and the Subaru Outback.

So you can thank Preston Tucker when you get your next new car, Harry, and can suddenly see around the bend.

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