It’ll be awhile yet before self-driving cars proliferate on the world’s roads, but every new model brings more automation to bolster the human driver’s limited attentional and responsive capacities, and to relieve the human driver of the tasks they don’t absolutely need to do. How do we reasonably divide up the tasks between driver and car, though? Some tasks are obvious: we don’t expect the vehicle’s occupants to inflate their own airbags just before a crash, or to remember to activate the brake lights when slowing or stopping the car, or to manually flash the turn signals on and off. In other cases, things get murkier.
For many years, all of the vehicle’s visibility systems were controlled directly or indirectly by the driver, who switched the headlamps on and off (and the instrument panel, licence plate, front and rear position, and sidemarker lights along with them), selected high or low beam, and activated the windshield wipers and washers as necessary. Those kinds of tasks have been automated over the years, to varying degree—and that variance has grown large enough to make problems. Some cars do and some cars don’t automatically switch on the headlamps or change from DRLs to full lamps with the rear and side conspicuity lights when it gets dark out. That used to be a self-solving problem; drivers in cars without automatic lights would sooner or later find themselves driving in the dark: no instrument lights, no pool of light on the road ahead, and sometimes opposing or following drivers would flash their lights. All of that was usually enough to jog the driver’s attention and they’d hit the light switch and drive on, properly lit. If not, they were probably drunk or otherwise impaired, and sooner or later a police car would flash the other kind of lights and get the sloppy driver off the road.
But today’s mix of automation and infotainment has thrown sand in those gears. For one thing, there’s nothing such as a dark dashboard any more. Most cars have instrument panels and consoles, touchscreens, and a panorama of other controls and displays illuminated whenever the car’s running. So, subtract that from the toolbox for indicating to the driver that he’s dark after dark (and let’s be realistic: telltales don’t work. Drivers do not know, care, or think about what a little green or blue pictogram of a light on their dashboard might mean). Most cars have daytime running lights, too, so the driver sees his lights reflected in the vehicle in front on the road, or in the wall or window in front of the parking space: remove that from the toolbox, too. And aside from the readers of this publication, what driver can reasonably be expected to think, “Hey, this oncoming car has its DRLs lit, not its nighttime headlamps; I’ll blink my lights at them to let them know!”? Remove that last tool from the box.
So now the toolbox is empty, and the result is cars driving round after dark with inadequate, unsafe lighting. Transport Canada say many Canadians have written to the department warning about the dangers of vehicles that travel in the dark without their tail lights illuminated, making them hard to spot. The issue has been prompting complaints for years; here’s an article from five years ago in a Canadian national newspaper, and there are many others like it going clear back to 1990.
Why don’t taillights turn on with daytime running lights?
Canada first required automatic daytime running lights on all new vehicles made after 31 December 1989, but turning on the car’s full headlamps, along with the front and rear position lamps, sidemarkers, and licence plate lights, has been left up to the driver unless the manufacturer volunteers to automate that task. The original idea was for the lack of dashboard illumination to nudge the driver to turn on the lights, but that never worked reliably in brightly-lit city streets, so oblivious drivers blithely blundered along without adequate seeing distance, dark from sides and rear, and with high-beam DRLs (many of which produce over 9,000 candela at H-V) dazzling other drivers. More recently the high-beam DRL is losing popularity to the UN R87-style DRL, but the problem of vehicles invisible from the sides and rear has grown worse with the rise of the always-lit dashboard.
Illuminated dashboard gives a false sense lights activated
“The vehicle’s illuminated dashboard can give the driver a false sense that their outside lights are activated, when they are not,” says a memo from earlier this year to Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau. “The department has received a continuous high influx of letters from the driving public raising concerns about the increasing [numbers of] phantom vehicles on the roads.”
The combination of some light coming from the front of the car (reflected in leading cars and gulling drivers into thinking their proper lights are on after dark) and always-on dashboard lights has led drivers to forget to hit the switch after dark. DRLs are inadequate for nighttime driving vision, and they produce more glare than low beams. That’s two more safety hazards whenever drivers forget to switch on their headlamps.
“These phantom vehicles also pose a safety risk to other road users as they are only seen at the last minute or when other lights are illuminated (e.g., brake lights), decreasing the available time for those other road users to react as they try to avoid a collision,” says the memo.
“The department needs to find a solution that will ensure that drivers can properly see and be seen at night.” While there’s been crash data supporting the 1989 daytime running lights requirements, the department acknowledges “there is still no documented evidence that vehicle collisions are caused by a lack of rear daytime running lights or delayed activation of vehicle night-time lights.”
Nevertheless, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—that is, just because a study has not been done doesn’t mean the effect to be studied doesn’t exist. Ian Jack, speaking for the Canadian Automobile Association, representing drivers, said “The message hasn’t gotten through to everyone that you still need to manually turn on your lights, in many cases, in order to be seen on the road at night or during foggy conditions…if we can do this through regulation, all the better.”
But in order for the situation to be made all better, the regulation has to be right. Transport Canada in February 2016 proposed three possible solutions:
• Fully-automatic light management wherein the vehicle switches from DRLs to full headlamps with position lights at a certain ambient light threshold, or
• Have the tail lights lit with the DRLs, or
• Not illuminate the dashboard unless the headlights are on.
UN Regulation 48 (Rev 12) sections 188.8.131.52–184.108.40.206 already contains these provisions, but UN R48 is not in force in Canada. Are they reasonably adequate provisions? The first one is; the other two are not. Here’s why:The always-lit dashboard is not likely to go away any time soon; today’s instrument panels are far too integral to the vehicle’s general controls (HVAC, sound system, etc) to render them invisible until the driver switches on the lights. Besides, this would aggravate a problem that’s existed for decades: faced with a dark dashboard, thoughtless drivers slap at the headlight switch until the dashboard lights up. That’s the front and rear position lights and sidemarkers, not the headlamps. Unfortunately, North American regulations are written such that the dashboard must illuminate when the position lights are lit, and the DRLs must not extinguish unless the headlamps are switched on. So the driver gropes at the headlight switch to light the dashboard, giving position lights plus DRLs. Better than total darkness to sides and rear, but still inadequate for the driver (and the pedestrians on the route) and dangerously glaring to other drivers.
Having the tail and sidemarker lights lit with the DRLs amounts to the same thing but without the driver’s lackadaisical sweeps at the headlight switch: a perfect recipe for a sharp increase in cars driving round at night with tail and sidemarker lights (good) and DRLs (bad), and even stronger false signal to the driver that the car has “automatic lights”.
One might reasonably object to the notion of figuratively wiping the driver’s nose, assuming that anyone enough of an adult to earn a driving licence should be expected to operate a motorcar correctly. That’s a fair point, but here’s another: correct user interface design calls for making correct operation of the machine as intuitive as possible—the path of least resistance, requiring less thought and effort to get right than to get wrong.
So the right way to solve the problem without creating new ones is to remove the driver completely from the task. The car activates daytime lights in the daytime, nighttime lights after dark. The technology to do this is simple, cheap, and reliable; we’ve had it for many years. All that stands in the way is automaker desire to monetise every last little bit of the car that isn’t strictly required by law. That is a simple fact of automakers’ fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders, and that is why automatic lights are the only reasonable, rational, realistic solution.
And for the matter of that, John Bullough and his team at Rensselaer Polytechnic’s Lighting Research Center have shown a clear benefit (fewer crashes) of “headlamps on when wipers are on” laws. With the reduced visibility and increased light scatter caused by rain and snow, low beams are the appropriate front lights; DRLs are inappropriate and side and rear lighting is crucial. Why, then, do makers not add a single line of code (at most) to their body control modules such that the full lights, on low beam, come on if the windshield wipers are activated for more than a short duration? This, like automatic day and night lighting, is inexpensive, low-hanging fruit to fuel the drive toward zero traffic fatalities. More than that, it’s ready and waiting to be used as an inexpensive light-based signal to the world’s regulators that automakers take lighting safety as a serious top priority. That can only help smooth the path for speedy regulatory approval of ADB and other advanced lighting systems.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, implementation of the requirement that automakers apply the one fix or either of the two nonfixes to their new vehicles has been delayed because manufacturers also want the Canadian government to officially update its requirements and test processes to permit new types of lighting systems (read: ADB), but not until the US Government allows them on American roads. Squabbling of that nature ran out the clock on the original 75-day comment period, so the new regulations are scheduled to take effect on 1 September 2020.