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Motoring Top Stories

What are matrix headlights and do they work?

Practical Motoring logo Practical Motoring 15/07/2019 Isaac Bober
© Provided by Practical Motoring Pty Ltd

More and more car makers are offering the choice of regular headlights or clever matrix headlights, but what are they and do they work?

Audi was the first car maker to launch matrix headlights on the Audi A8 in 2013, but since then more and more car makers have rolled out these clever LED lights. While Practical Motoring first sampled Audi’s matrix lights at the launch of the A4 in 2016, we’ve since had plenty of experience with them. Indeed, in the last couple of weeks we’ve sampled matrix lights from two brands, Land Rover and Audi.

This experience prompted this article because of all the things you’ll do in a vehicle, until full autonomous driving arrives, seeing the blue high-beam symbol illuminated on your dashboard while driving in traffic is possibly the most disconcerting.

What are matrix headlights?

Sometimes known as pixel lighting, matrix systems are based around a high-beam unit consisting of a cluster of LEDs (the Audi matrix system consists of up to 25 LEDs per high-beam unit), rather than a single high-beam bulb that you might find in a conventional headlight. Some makers, like Land Rover, offer a level of lighting packages, including Matrix LED and Matrix-Laser LED. Most of these lighting systems are more-or-less the same, in that when you select ‘Auto’ on the light switch, high beam will be activated above a ‘certain’ speed.

a toaster oven sitting on top of a car: matrix headlights © Provided by Practical Motoring Pty Ltd matrix headlights

A camera mounted on the windscreen can detect headlights and tail-lights and often on more than three or four vehicles and will then deactivate the LED where the vehicle is, placing it into a shadow, with the road around and inbetween the vehicle(s) illuminated via high beam. Land Rover’s Matrix-LED system, like that used by Audi and other makers, is designed to cast a longer main beam above 80km/h out to around 600 metres.

The light beams, rather than being projected out from the vehicle as a ‘beam’ are designed to ‘light’ as both horizontal and vertical strips which allows the system to create square shadows and so on. Clever stuff.

What’s it like using matrix headlights?

Driving along the highway the other night in a Range Rover Sport PHEV I’d inadvertently set the headlights to automatic. This activated the matrix system and once travelling at more than 80km/h the headlights switched to high-beam. Deep in traffic and seeing the little blue high-beam symbol illuminate on the dashboard caused panic…my wife said to switch it off.

And that’s because that’s what we used to do, right. Driving on the road at night, you’d have the high-beams on and a finger cocked and ready to flick the wand and swap back to main-beam only. But the theory with matrix lights is that you don’t need to.

matrix headlights © Provided by Practical Motoring Pty Ltd matrix headlights

The boffins say the system will work out whether the vehicle is coming towards you or whether you’re following a car, and then blank it out so as not to dazzle the driver. At the same time, you’ll get the benefit of high-beam illumination around the vehicle. And it works.

Driving along, you can watch the lighting system blank certain clusters as the vehicle moves away from you or towards you. And then you can watch the light return as the vehicle moves away. Now, I haven’t had a chance to be followed by a vehicle with matrix lights but I will do this week while I’m testing the Audi Q8 and I’ll update this article once I’ve experienced it myself.

That said, while driving along the other night, and I did eventually, turn the auto lights off because the little blue high-beam light on the dash was just too much to take (small steps), not a single person driving towards me flicked their high-beams. Can that be used as anecdotal evidence the system works as intended? Probably. I’ll let you know for sure later this week. Stay tuned.

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