Car headlights exist to improve the safety of those driving on the roads at night or when there is inclement weather happening. However, imagine headlights that project millions of movable small cones of light instead of just a broad fixed beam.  Now make these millions of cones movable so you could direct them away from oncoming traffic at night (so drivers aren’t blinded to your oncoming vehicle) or project around angles when the car is making a turn.  But why stop there, let’s make these lights capable of projecting arrows onto the street or road, as dictated by a GPS and local traffic control information too. Ultimately, you want more control behind the wheel, right?


Well, here’s where programmable headlights come in. A team of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) engineers has developed a prototype of a programmable headlight that performs these duties, and much more. Carnegie Melon presented their findings in Zurich, Switzerland, at the European Conference on Computer Vision. The secret to the headlights is a chip with millions of small mirrors on it that can be moved super rapidly.  The chip itself is not new, it’s a type of the Digital Mirror Device (DMD) chip that Texas Instruments has been creating for video display devices for well over ten years now. 


More about DMD Chips


In older rear screen projection TVs and newer front projection monitors, DMD chips are put together with spinning color wheels to create bright, high resolution video images.  In the Carnegie Mellon contraption, only a chip similar to a DMD one and an ultra-bright light source are needed to light up the visual field/road area ahead.


As you might imagine, driving the DMD chip in a programmable headlight unit requires some serious electronics and sensors.  The device’s on-board computer reacts to what it’s sensed within 1 to 2.5 milliseconds and this is quick enough to perform the majority of the advanced features that have been imagined.  According to this Volvo dealer in Schaumburg, IL, faster speeds should open it up to even more advanced features. 


Making Snowflakes Evaporate


One amazing feature that’s still being developed is the ability to make snow “disappear” when behind the wheel. To make snowflakes go away, the system tracks the falling snowflakes, predicts where they’re going, then turns off the beams that would otherwise reflect light off the flakes. This happens so fast that to the driver it appears that that the snowflakes are not there.  The driver effectively sees no snowflakes in front of them.


The Present Day

Currently the CMU’s programmable headlight device is a bulky prototype that sits on a test car’s hood.  Despite many years of work already, there is still much work to do on the hardware and software before the programmable headlight sees wide availability.  To learn more, Google “programmable headlight” and you will find many articles and technical papers.


We hope that you learned a lot from this article on progressive headlights, and that you will refer your family and/or friends to it! We have found it to be a super interesting topic!