Every year, car headlights waste an unconscionable number of photons by illuminating things that the driver of the car doesn’t care about. All those poor photons, just uselessly flying off into the darkness. GM has been feeling guilty about this, so they’ve got engineers at Opel/Vauxhall working on a system that makes sure your car’s headlights point where your eyes are looking and nowhere else.
It seems like an obvious idea, right? Most of the time, you’re looking ahead, so that’s where your car’s headlights are pointed by default. But there are all kinds of situations that probably come up every single time that you drive anywhere at night that make headlights locked in the forward position less than ideal. Like when you’re approaching crosswalks. Or curves in the road. Or every single intersection where you need to look left and right before turning or continuing straight.
Rather than just turn to follow the road like some adaptive headlights do, GM’s system can move on both horizontal and vertical axes to point your headlights in very specific directions, whether it’s off to one side, close to the car or off in the distance, or some weird combination if, say, the weather is bad and you’re driving through a crowded area.
In order to figure out where to point, GM is relying on a relatively simple infrared camera along with infrared illuminators that can identify your pupils. The system watches you continuously, updating the direction of your gaze 50 times a second, and easily adapts to whoever is behind the wheel, no calibration required.
Recognizing that drivers get easily distracted, GM’s lighting system includes a sort of delayed smoothing algorithm that keeps the headlights from erratically jumping up and down as you repeatedly glance at your cell phone (or somewhere less dangerous), resulting in what the carmaker calls “a suitably flowing movement for the light cone.” In other words, the headlights will generally keep pointing in the same direction unless you focus somewhere else for a little bit, which will cause them to smoothly adjust themselves to provide the best possible illumination.
GM is currently referring to this eye tracking system as “the lighting system of the future,” suggesting that it’s not going to be introduced in consumer cars for a little while at least. Within the next 18 months, the Opel/Vauxhall will be introducing movable headlights without the eye tracking, so it’s certainly possible that the eye tracking hardware could be introduced within the next two to three years.