The auto industry's headlights shine better, brighter, farther and more ornately than ever.
But that doesn't necessarily mean they're good, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Over the past two years, the independent, nonprofit U.S. research group, which represents major insurers in working to reduce losses from vehicle damage and injuries, has released four studies concluding that most headlights on new vehicles it has tested are not good enough.
Foreign and domestic, car and truck, luxury and nonluxury — the list of vehicles ranked with "poor" or "marginal" headlights is diverse.
The criticism comes at an interesting time for the auto industry. Recent car shows reveal that automakers and suppliers are enjoying a golden era of vehicle lighting. Headlamps have become works of art. Thanks to a switch from halogen to brighter LEDs, as well as new capabilities in molding and production, designers have the freedom to infuse greater detail into their fixtures, incorporating outlines that flow into quarter panels and hood lines.
Suppliers of polycarbonate and other plastics point to the lights as a high profile parts they are supplying to high profile vehicles.
But the insurance institute isn't happy. It says headlights often come off the factory line poorly aimed, which can cause glare and renders the move to brighter LEDs null.
In the studies from the institute, whose pronouncements influence consumer buying decisions, only four models out of 100 received a "good" ranking. Forty models received a "poor" ranking because of their headlights.
Last summer, in its testing of headlights on 37 midsize SUVs, 23 ranked "marginal" or "poor."
During testing, institute engineers measure how far light is projected from low beams and high beams as a vehicle drives straight and around curves. They also measure whether the lights create excessive glare for oncoming vehicles.
Just 15 models qualified for the insurance institute's 2018 Top Safety Pick Plus award, down from 38 the year before, due largely to its new requirement that a "good" headlight rating is necessary to receive the Safety Pick award. Certain vehicles considered for the Top Safety Pick Plus award were not tested in the original headlight studies.
Matthew Brumbelow, a senior research engineer at the insurance institute, called the industrywide low scores "concerning." Almost half of the nation's fatal traffic accidents occur at night, he said, even though less than half of all driving occurs at night. Headlights are one of the "biggest reducers" of crashes, he said.
"A headlight is very basic equipment, but you can think of it as crash avoidance, like automatic braking equipment," Brumbelow said. "This test is a big one with a range of performance."
The insurance group is also battling a lack of federal regulation on lighting, such as with headlight aim, and the fact that consumers often only access better lighting technology in more expensive tech packages.