Night driving is difficult for many people. Driving in the dark is much different from driving during the daylight hours. The human eye’s field of vision is much smaller without the help of natural light.
Also consider that during this holiday season from December 23 to January 2, 92.3 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles from home, according to AAA. Much of that driving will take place before or after work hours. Last year December 21 had more darkness than any other day of the year—Hoosiers, for example, saw just 9 hours and 15 minutes of light—it’s clear as day how much driving in the dark we do during the winter months.
We all know that night driving is more challenging and unavoidable. So what can be done to make it easier? What are automobile manufacturers doing to make night driving less challenging? Are there simple ways we can make it easier as car owners? Hopefully this blog will help answer some of those questions.
New Technology to Make Night Driving Less Challenging
Auto makers are working on new ways to make night driving even easier. Many of these systems are based on newly available technology. Unfortunately, many of these options are still very expensive and are only available in high-end vehicles. Nonetheless, these advancements should be available for most cars over the next decade. Let’s review some of them.
1. Active Headlights
The most direct approach to making it easier to drive in the dark is simply to illuminate the road. High-intensity-discharge (or HID) headlamps began appearing on cars in the early 1990s and since then have spread across the industry. These lights most often use xenon gas and produce light up to four times brighter than traditional halogen headlights.
Brighter headlights help to illuminate the road ahead but can fall short when cars are taking corners or tackling twisty roads at night. The next step, therefore, is active lighting, which aims the headlights based on steering input and other factors. The Citroën DS featured rudimentary swiveling headlights in 1967. It wasn’t the first, though, and the modern equivalent of such systems are available on tons of vehicles today. But the latest setups, such as BMW’s adaptive headlights, use a camera integrated into the rearview mirror to detect oncoming vehicles and automatically dip the headlights so other drivers don’t get a flash of high-powered xenons in their eyes. Automakers such as Audi, Lexus, Ford, General Motors, and Infiniti offer similar systems. Mercedes even uses mirrors to redirect the headlight beams when driving in fog.
2. Night Vision with Pedestrian and Obstacle Detection
Even with powerful xenon headlights—and systems working to ensure they’re pointed where they need to be—there’s no way to illuminate the entire road ahead. To deal with that, a number of high-end manufacturers, including Mercedes, Audi, and BMW offer night-vision systems as options in their midrange and top-of-the-line models. Some project images onto a head-up display and some onto an LCD on the instrument panel or dash, and the newest systems in use specifically call out pedestrians or obstacles that pose an imminent threat of collision.
The latest night-vision system from Mercedes, called “active night view assist plus,” not only detects people but also objects by shining nonvisible infrared light, like military-grade night-vision tech. Other systems typically rely on the infrared generated from body heat. When a person is detected, the Mercedes system goes so far as to flash a spotlight on the pedestrian to warn of the oncoming car (although one assumes the headlights would do that already) and point out the person to the vehicle’s driver, in case the highlighted silhouette on the night-vision display wasn’t enough. At the same time, the HID headlights will dip for five seconds to avoid blinding the pedestrian. Audi’s version claims to be able to detect a pedestrian as far as an incredible 1000 feet away—more than three football fields.
3. Active Cruise Control and Braking
Radar- and laser-based active cruise-control systems have been available on premium cars for several years, modulating engine power and brakes to maintain a set distance behind a vehicle. But new iterations are even more intelligent and more capable. The latest systems, such as Toyota’s adaptive cruise control, can scan for slower-moving vehicles on roads with light or no traffic and apply the brakes while approaching. Some, like Audi’s, will warn a driver with a beep about upcoming vehicles, even in other lanes. The most active systems, however, can bring the vehicle to a full stop if they detect that the vehicle ahead is not moving. Volvo’s “city safety” system is active only at speeds less than 18 mph, but systems like Mercedes’ Pre-Safe, which works in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control, can completely halt the vehicle from any speed.
4. Blind Spot Monitoring and Lane Departure Warning
Blind-spot monitoring systems use radar modules, usually one in each rear quarter-panel, to scan for and detect vehicles in adjacent lanes. If a vehicle is detected, the driver receives a warning. In Ford’s application, this is as simple as flashing LEDs located on the side mirror. BMW’s “active blind spot detection” will even vibrate the steering wheel as a tactile warning to drivers who begin to change lanes when another vehicle is in the blind spot. Audi’s optional “side assist” illuminates yellow LEDs in the side mirror any time the radar system detects an approaching vehicle in an adjacent lane—even before the Audi driver has flicked on the turn signal. How’s that for reading your mind?
Lane-departure warning systems are offered by quite a few manufacturers and are not limited to the most-expensive vehicles. Honda, Buick, Toyota, and Ford, among many others, use cameras to monitor lane markers. If a vehicle drifts over the line, these systems will alert the driver by vibrating the steering wheel or seat or with dash lights and beeps. In some vehicles, the computers go even further. Lexus’s system will countersteer the car to keep it in the intended lane, and Infiniti’s gently applies the appropriate brakes on one side of the vehicle to prevent drift. These systems generally do work in the dark, but as always, vigilance is best.
5. Attention Assistance and Tiredness Alerts
We always suggest staying off the road when you’re tired—often the case when driving during those long winter nights—but it’s easy to become less alert over the course of a night without even realizing it. The other systems highlighted here help to avoid accidents based on physical surroundings (although there’s absolutely no substitute for careful, attentive, distraction free driving), but systems from several automakers are actually focused on determining when a driver is fatigued, before anything can happen.
The new “attention assist” system, which is standard on 2011 Mercedes E-classes, among other Benzes, monitors steering inputs to identify what Mercedes calls “erratic corrections” and will warn the driver with a tone and a message on the instrument panel, accompanied by—we kid you not—a coffee-cup icon. Volvo’s “driver alert control,” which has been on sale for several years, works differently. It depends on a road-facing camera and other sensors to determine if a driver seems inattentive by looking at the vehicle’s distance from lane markers and position on the road.
Other manufacturers are even examining drivers themselves for signs of tiredness, rather than the car. Lexus’s current “driver attention monitor” uses an infrared camera to determine the direction of the driver’s face and will lightly apply the brakes if an object is detected while the driver is looking away from the road ahead. Saab is working on technology that can scan a driver’s face for signs of fatigue, but such an advancement remains several years from production.
You might be thinking, “Wow that’s great! But what can I do on my car to make it easier to drive at night?”
- Take your time. Allow your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness before you start driving. It takes a few minutes for the pupils to fully dilate, allowing for maximum light to enter the eye. The more light your pupils let enter the eye, the better your vision will be.
- Minimize glare. Look to the bottom right of the road to avoid approaching headlights. (Some headlights are blindingly bright.) Also use the night setting on your rearview mirror to deflect the glare from vehicles behind you. Older drivers find it more difficult to see at night because it takes longer for them to recover from glare.
- Keep it dark. Turn off all interior lights. Any source of light inside the car will seem extremely bright and will make it more difficult to see.
- Slow down. Reduce your driving speed to give yourself longer to react if something happens on the road in front of you. Driving at a slower speed will also give you more confidence.
- Tune it up. Keep your car in tip-top shape for maximum safety. Regularly check fluid levels, tire pressure and brake pads and replace windshield wipers. Thoroughly clean headlights, taillights and signal lights. Make sure all windows are clean on both the inside and outside.
Ultimately, driving in the dark is more challenging than driving at night. Vehicle manufacturers are doing what they can to make it even easier. However, with a little bit of preperation and attention, night driving doesn’t need to be difficult.
(Note: New vehicle information gathered from Car & Driver)