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A major piece of President Joe Biden’s agenda has been officially signed into law. The aptly named Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R.3684) appropriates $1.2 trillion of taxpayer money to the good cause of rebuilding roads, bridges, broadband internet, water supply, freight rail, and airports. In fact, it’s the largest such investment within the United States for decades.

Within the incredibly dense legalese of the bill, there exist provisions and new laws regarding federal motor vehicle safety standards, as well as how those standards can fall in line with other major safety standards across the globe. The bill seems to allow previously forbidden safety technology to come to our shores and aims to consolidate safety standards in some moves that may help automakers save money with similar standards for European and North American cars. It also introduces fascinating tidbits of new rules for cars that reduce emissions and standardize safety equipment.

This presents an interesting opportunity for European automakers to bring their previously incompatible A-game and has some weird new laws. Let’s take a look.

Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What Happened, Why It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.

What Happened

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into public law by President Joe Biden after months of partisan gridlock. This is the first of a series of two bills that the President wants to be a major part of his economic agenda, with the second bill being the Build Back Better Act that interlocks with certain key initiatives in the infrastructure bill.

The bill was reduced significantly from its original fiscal vision of a $2.6 trillion bill and has been signed into public law as a $1.2 trillion bill, which still represents an unprecedented public spend from the federal government. Within the expanse of the bill exist a few key changes to federal motor vehicle regulations as well.

Many of the key motor vehicle safety points of the bill exist under Title IV, Subtitle B, starting with Section 24201. Most of the section defines the amount of money that will be spent on efforts under Subtitle B and several studies on connected vehicle technologies, child safety, and more. Direct changes to the law include an updated headlight law that replaces the previous Standard 108 that will allow improved adaptive headlights to come to the United States.

While that is very cool, I want to move on to some other points and talk about headlights later. There is also Section 24211, “global harmonization” that we should talk about. It is a short section that states “The [Transportation] Secretary shall cooperate, to the maximum extent practicable, with foreign governments, non-governmental stakeholder groups, the motor vehicle industry, and consumer groups with respect to global harmonization of vehicle regulations as a means for improving motor vehicle safety.”

Basically, it means that there should now be a concerted effort from federal regulators, starting at the Secretary of Transportation to standardize and communicate safety standards across the Atlantic. For example, the United States uses more powerful and expensive two-stage airbags that help protect unbelted drivers while European standards use a single-stage airbag. With this bill, the single-stage airbag could be standardized across the two regulatory bodies to no detriment of belted drivers. Wear your seatbelts, people.

Now we move on to Section 24208, “crash avoidance technology”. The federal government wants to establish minimum performance standards for forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems and will require all vehicles sold in the United States to be equipped with such systems after a date determined by the Secretary of Transportation. 

Another interesting and small section is 24205, “automatic shutoff”. It states that no later than two years after the enactment of the bill, automakers will be required to install time-based automatic shutoff systems in their internal combustion keyless ignition-equipped vehicles. The period of time has not yet been defined pending the Secretary’s determination, but it is coming in the name of reducing carbon emissions from idling vehicles.

Finally, Section 24214 “hood and bumper standards” outlines intentions from the federal government to review current pedestrian and cyclist versus vehicle safety standards and further harmonization with global standards under United Nations Economic Commission regulations to reduce injuries and fatalities.

Why It Matters

This is the biggest public spend in generations and it’s a refreshing change from what I see as spending our taxpayer money on increasingly stupid things that have no real civilian or professional oversight. Seeing it get spent on fixing crumbling infrastructure that is crucial to the safety of road users is good to see and we get an interesting new horizon in consolidating safety standards and getting true adaptive headlights.

To be clear, we currently have adaptive headlights in the United States, but they are nothing like what it is in Europe. I’m not 100-percent certain of the safety standard but it seems that high-intensity discharge headlights require an auto-leveling function, while LEDs and halogens don’t require any adaptation. Either way, automakers have been offering headlights that turn with steering input and automatically level for about 15 years now.

What the bill allows to come to our shores are the adaptive headlights with stupendously accurate and active matrix-style light arrays. Not only do the lights turn, but they also contain several lights per side that form a grid that is projected onto the road in front of you. As the car detects road signs and other cars, individual lights will shut off or brighten to alert the driver to road signs or reduce glare for oncoming drivers while maintaining impressive light output. It’s extremely nifty tech.

All we have now are single light sources that have motors attached to them that turn with steering input and cornering lights that activate at low speeds. With the advent of automatic high beams, we weren’t missing too much compared to Europe but this is much appreciated.

I find the interesting points of Title IV, Subtitle B more fascinating and have longer-term implications for federal safety standards than some light bulbs. There is going to be a concerted effort to standardize safety equipment across regulatory bodies. For enthusiasts, that means the path to interesting European-only cars may have just become a little less fraught. Don’t get your hopes up, however, because we have vastly different crash standards than the European Union, particularly in roof strength.

With standardization and global harmonization being a strong throughline of Title IV, Subtitle B, new safety standards are an inevitability. How they will affect motorists will be interesting to track, as well as how they will further pedestrian and cyclist safety. Clearly, the federal government is looking to take hundreds of stabs at reducing carbon emissions and increasing safety for a larger whole, especially with the interesting automatic shutoff law, and new hood and bumper standards. 

What To Look For Next

Much of the hard deadlines for the provisions in this bill are set to activate in two to three years from the date of it becoming public law and some are subject to dates that need to be defined by the current Secretary of Transportation. Though with President Biden looking to move this agenda quickly as a major point of his presidency, we can expect dates to be set relatively quickly for the federal government.

Look out for how these new global harmonization initiatives will shake out over time. The bureaucratic machine of our government moves slowly and it will take time for anything to become concrete. There is a decent likelihood that we won’t see many of these changes until the next term of whichever candidate wins the presidency in 2024. By then, the landscape of cars may look totally different once again.

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