A 50-Year-Old Regulation Stops Us From Getting Cool Headlights

I recently learned that Mercedes-Benz, official automaker of drivers who put tissue boxes on the rear shelf, has updated the CLS for the 2015 model year. This is great news, and I invite you all to join me in expressing our collective excitement by asking the following question: They still make the CLS?

Just kidding! I'm very aware they still make the CLS. I think about it every time I drive past a first-generation CLS, which was very cutting-edge when it came out in 2005, but now looks like the kind of thing an emerging Russian luxury brand would've created during the last days of the Cold War. Seriously: the original CLS has aged so badly that you half expect to see them driving around with stick-on fender vents, missing hubcaps, and huge "SALT LIFE" decals in the back window.

But anyway, back to the new CLS. Here's what they're updating for the 2015 model year:

1. They're changing the headlights and front bumper so that people who leased a CLS three years ago can tell their friends they now have "the new one."

2. They're adding that stick-on infotainment screen everyone seems to hate, except for actual Mercedes owners.

3. They're coming out with a base-level, V6-powered CLS400 model in an attempt to increase annual North American sales from 27 units to 36.

You know what they're not doing? They're not coming out with cool adaptive headlights that illuminate the road ahead like a police helicopter's searchlight while simultaneously keeping light away from other drivers. I mean, yeah, sure, they're coming out with this technology in Europe. But not here. And it's all because of a federal regulation that was enacted before man walked on the moon.

But before we get to that, a little background on the CLS lighting system. It's called Active Multibeam II, and here's how it works: you're driving along on some dark road with your high beams illuminated. The system senses another car coming your way. Just then, 24 different individually controlled LEDs spring into action: the ones pointed at the other car dim so the oncoming driver isn't blinded. The ones pointed at the road ahead brighten so you can see where you're going. And when you pass, the lights go back to their ready position, excited to do their job again, until the entire system breaks six months after the warranty expires.

Audi has a similar system, which it calls "MatrixBeam LED." It works in approximately the same way as the Mercedes system, only with two minor exceptions: 1) Audi doesn't use as many LEDs as Mercedes, and 2) Audi's system will break during the warranty period, but Audi North America will deny your warranty claim.

Of course, the system's longevity doesn't matter to North American consumers, because we won't be getting this technology anyway. And that brings us back to the Nixon-era regulation that prohibits it. Behold, federal regulation 3222-A, section B, row 19, seats 4 and 5, located just behind the visitor's dugout, which states, and I'm paraphrasing here:

August 7, 1968: IT IS RESOLVED THAT President Nixon is doing a superb job of managing this great nation. FURTHER, BE IT KNOWN that the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia is the pinnacle of automotive design and shall forever be understood as the finest vehicle of the modern era. THUSLY, IT IS HEREBY ENACTED THAT ALL HEADLIGHTS MUST HERETOFORE HAVE "HIGH" AND "LOW" SETTINGS, ASSUMING THAT "HERETOFORE" MEANS "IN THE FUTURE."

So the crux of this issue is that Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, and everyone else, must have a driver-selectable "high" and "low" setting on their headlights in order to be compliant with this regulation. This is largely because federal regulators back in the 1960s could've never dreamed of a system where a computer controls a car's headlights, largely because all the stories you hear about computers from the 1960s say they were the size of a living room table, and they were mostly used for playing chess.

The problem with this regulation, of course, is that Mercedes-Benz and Audi do have a "high" and "low" setting — it just isn't controlled by the driver. Instead, it's controlled by modern technology that's a LOT smarter than the average Mercedes or Audi driver. I base this statement on the sheer number of Audi A4 Cabriolet owners who drive around at all hours of the day with absolutely no knowledge that their high beams are on. It would be nice to get a federal regulation banning these people from the road, but this is where government falls short.

So now you're thinking: OK, fine. We get your point. So what should we do about it? Rise up? Write to our congressperson? Picket the Capitol? HURL THINGS AT THE WHITE HOUSE?!?! The answer is, of course, that you should do none of those things. I say this because Audi has been attempting to get this regulation changed for 18 months now, and they've made absolutely no progress. So what impact would you have, as an average, regular, everyday Oreo-eating citizen? Absolutely none. Instead, you should just relax, forget your outrage, and above all else, remember to shield your eyes when you see an A4 Cabriolet coming the other direction.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.