The Department of Transportation is preparing new standards for car headlights that will permit high beams twice as bright as those used on most cars.
The brighter lights will be the biggest change in vehicular illumination since cars were allowed to have four headlights instead of two.
But the new bulbs will cost at least twice as much as present headlights, and probably will sell initially for up to $15 apiece, lamp makers say.
After five years of research and intensive industry lobbying, the proposed new standards are expected to be published in the federal register soon and could go into effect next summer.
Major headlamp producers already are preparing to manufacture the new bulbs and one auto maker reportedly will offer them on a top of the line 1979 model.
The new federal standards will permit - but not require - high beams putting out 150,000 candellas of light, rather than the present 75,000 maximum. Said Charles Baker, chief of DOT's lighting and visability section.
The standard will continue to require auto headlights to be sealed beams, keeping out of the U.S. market many European lights which do not use sealed beams.
The DOT is preparing to crack down on imports of the non-sealed beam European driving lights, which have been imported and sold for years even though they do not meet federal standards.
DOT lawyers also are contemplating action against the states of Washington and Oregon, which have legalized the non-sealed beams in defiance of federal regulations.
Other countries, including Canada have long permitted more powerful prompting criticism of "archiac" U.S. auto lighting than the United States, lighting laws.
"This puts us right up there with the Europeans" in terms of maximum light output, Baker said.
He pointed out that DOT studies show U.S. drivers use their high beam only 4 per cent of the time, because they are driving in traffic or under street lights. In the District of Columbia it is illegal to drive with high beams.
The brighter lights to be permitted by DOT will enable drivers to see further down the road and to perceive more detail along the roadway, Baker said.
Initially the higher light output will be allowed only for the high beams in four-headlight systems. When DOT allowed car makers to use rectangular shaped headlights, it permitted them to be up to 150,000 candellas, but that provision has had little impact because so few cars use the rectangular lamps.
Auto lighting makers say they expect most if not all the more powerful lamps to be of the quartz halogen variety. They work like flourescent lights rather than like conventional incandescent bulbs.
Spokesmen for Westinghouse and General Electric, two of the major headlamp makers, said they are preparing to produce quartz halogen lights and will probably have them on the market next year.
They will have no European lights to compete with if DOT lawyers have their way. Though they do not meet DOT standards, non-sealed beams are widely sold to sports car and recreational vehicle drivers.
DOT legal officer Zachery Taylor Vinson said the government plans to take imports to court to stop sales of non-sealed beam headlights. "it won't take very many lawsuits to cool their ardor," he said.
Vinson said, however, that DOT is not about to sue Washington and Oregon for defying federal authority and legalizing use of 150,000-candella non-sealed beams within their states.
Federal standards pre-empt state authority over auto lighting, DOT contends. Rather than comfront the states, however, federal authorities hope to persuade the legislatures of Washington and Oregon to reverse their decisions and require sealed beams.
DOT insists sealed beams are necessary. Non-sealed beam headlamps cannot be aimed on the mechanical aiming machines used in this country, Baker argues, and the 150,000 candella lights will be more sensitive to misadjustment, glaring in the eyes of oncoming drivers.
Baker said DOT also wants to assure that replacement headlights are readily available, by requiring all cars to use the same kind of bulbs.
If a variety of headlamp types were used, "we've be right back where we were in the 1930s before we had sealed beams," camplained Baker. Because dozens of kinds of lights were used them, drivers had to hunt for replacement bulbs and spent more time driving with headlights out.
Light importers say DOT has a phobia about non-sealed headlights.
"Europeans have been driving with them for years without blinding each other," said Joel Gorick, president of a group of Washington automotive aftermarket companies, including Marchel America, which imports Marchel lights from France.
Since the special bulbs are used only for high beams, there is little danger involved if a driver is unable to replace a burned out bulb immediately, the importers contend.