How’s this for a universal experience?: You’re driving along after dusk, minding your own business, when suddenly you spot a ghost car — someone driving along with their gauges illuminated and daytime running lights on, completely oblivious to the fact that their taillights are off. Not only is this as infuriating as ordering a Whopper and getting some Burger King Foot Lettuce, it’s downright dangerous. So how could we fix this?
Hello from the land of Bob and Doug McKenzie! Yes, we Canadians founded the core concept behind most 56k modems, invented the g-suit for pilots, and made every song on Top 40 radio sound like Drake featuring Drake. It should come as no surprise that we’ve figured out a way to fix the ghost car issue — drivers thinking their headlights are on when it’s really just their daytime running lights, meaning their taillights are off — going forward. On Sept. 1, 2021, Transport Canada implemented a new set of rules to curb a lack of proper lamp use. The federal government even issued a press release in 2018 saying it’s going “ghostbusting.” Aren’t we fucking clever? As for the rules themselves, they’re pretty simple. Here we go, ripped directly and shamelessly from said press release to avoid any potential bungling:
The safety standard requires all new cars sold in Canada as of 2021 to be more visible in low-light conditions, and will require manufacturers to build vehicles that do one of the following:
- Have daytime running lights and tail lights come on when the vehicle instrument panel is illuminated and the vehicle is in operation;
- Automatically turn on the headlights, tail lights, and side marker lights in low-light conditions; or
- Keep the driver’s instrument panel dark so the driver knows to turn on all the lights.
Alright, so this sounds pretty simple. It’s hard to keep the instrument panel dark unless a manufacturer makes something like the Mitsubishi Mirage, so anything with a TFT screen in the cluster, a fully digital dashboard, or electroluminescent gauges will have to abide by either the first rule or the second rule. Anything without automatic headlights can just run daytime running lights front and rear, while cars with automatic headlights should be all good.
But wait, is there anything preventing manufacturers from having a hard off detent on switches for automatic lights? From the wording, it appears not, but most manufacturers actually seem to be taking this seriously. As such, this new set of lighting regulations helps facilitate the rise of three categories of switches. Let’s take a look at what they are, how they work, and what their benefits and drawbacks are.
First up, here’s something GM’s been doing for a few years, shown in the video on a Mazda 3 — the spring-back light switch, not to be confused with the snapback light switch. How does it work? Well, it’s simple and complicated all at once. You can still turn the headlights off by holding the switch towards the off position, but the switch will then spring back to the automatic setting and the lighting control module can automatically reactivate the automatic headlights based on vehicle speed or gear position, or upon the next ignition cycle.
As you can see in the image above, fixed detents for this switch include automatic headlights, side marker lights, and low-beam headlights work; turning the headlights off requires twisting the switch and holding, which compresses a spring and actuates an internal momentary switch. Because the spring-back function requires a spring and a momentary switch, it’s probably the most complex of this new breed of light switches. Nevertheless, it seems to be extremely common. Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, General Motors, and several other manufacturers have adopted these switches.
While all current-generation Mazda 3s use a spring-back switch, not all CX-5s do. Taking a look at the 2022 CX-5’s owner’s manual (flip to page 4-73), Canadian models use a spring-back switch while American models don’t. Contrast that with the 2020 model’s owner’s manual (flip to page 4-76), and all North American models got a traditional stalk-mounted headlight switch with a detent for off.
Also, can we please talk about how relentlessly thorough Mazda’s owner’s manuals are? They’ve got tables and footnotes and diagrams everywhere. While it would’ve been really easy to word instructions for ease of basic understanding, you can’t help but get the sense that Mazda actually cares about making cars. It’s also kind of neat how if the headlight switch is set to illuminate the side-marker lamps, the headlights are automatically turned on when in motion. That’s likely the powertrain control module interpreting the vehicle speed signal and telling the lighting control module to glow things up like the Vegas strip, a real show of how small, thoughtful decisions can make cars better.
While most manufacturers have chosen a spring-back switch, Nissan has wisely gone with the minimum viable solution — just remove the off position. Now the headlight switch labeling reads AUTO (which will activate the headlights and taillights when necessary), two jellyfish head-butting each other (side marker lights, which will activate the taillights), low-beam headlights. Honestly, I like this solution a lot. It’s dead simple, cheap, and absolutely idiotproof. Hey, in an era of ever-ballooning MSRPs and financing out the bunghole all the way to 144 months (do not do this), keeping costs down to provide consumers with affordable cars sounds like a dope idea.
Interestingly enough, Stellantis also seems to be a fan of the lockout-style switch devoid of an “off” option. Taking a look at JL Jeep Wrangler owner’s manuals, Canadian-market 2022 Jeep Wranglers won’t let owners turn the headlights off, while Canadian-market 2020 Wranglers did. Yes, Canadian-market Wranglers get an entirely different headlight switch from American models. How’s that for a market-specific quirk?
Honestly, it’s mildly infuriating knowing that a switch is fully available at the Toledo plant that would stop US-market Jeep Wranglers from driving along with tail lights off, yet Jeep doesn’t equip US models with it. It’s just so stupidly simple that you’d think it would be a whole-line change. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that a retrofit of the new Canadian headlight switch would be as simple as un-plugging the American switch and plugging in the Canadians switch. While it’s possible that Jeep just isn’t running the pins for headlights off on the Canadian switch, I’d need TIS access to know if lighting control module programming is required.
Welcome to the category of others, where some manufacturers are doing neat things and other are re-inventing the wheel to run themselves over. These two headlight switches aren’t born from Canada’s new headlight laws, but the way they work ensures compliance. Let’s start with a manufacturer with a weird but cool headlight switch, Ford.
The headlight switches in new Fords don’t actually have fixed detents. What do I mean by that? You know how most headlight switches just stop at either end of their travel? Ford’s keeps going like a fidget spinner. So how does a lighting switch without hard positions work? Well instead of fixed detents that send constant current to the lighting control module, Ford’s switch is just telling the lighting control module to go onto the next programmed preset or previous programmed preset (low-beams, automatic, marker lights, etc.). Because there are no fixed detents, this switch lets the lighting control module default to automatic headlights every time the ignition cycles. Think spring-back in concept but without the spring. More importantly, the setting for automatic headlights is right next to the setting for low-beam headlights, so the headlights can stay on if you want to knock things back into automatic. It’s a strange way of doing things, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
What’s not quite so genius is whatever the hell Volkswagen’s doing lately. Look, I understand that capacitive touch controls can be cool for certain functions. The capacitive-touch panoramic moonroof sunshade switch streamlines the concept behind Volkswagen’s old sunroof dial, while the capacitive touch pads to access secret compartments on certain Cadillacs feel like a secret handshake. What do these things have in common? They have absolutely nothing to do with driving the damn car. Now, there are positives to Volkswagen’s touch-sensitive headlight control panels like the one pictured above. The default is always auto, and if you turn the headlights off, they’ll come back on above 6 mph (10 km/h) or if you drive around 100 meters (0.62 miles). There are also downsides, like having to cycle through modes to keep your headlights on if it’s rainy yet bright enough not to trip the automatic headlights. Repeated presses of the same button aren’t exactly muscle memory-friendly.
So there we are, the first big changes in automotive lighting switches in years. Hey, if it doesn’t cost much and makes the roads safer, it feels like a no-brainer. Having tested cars with all these styles of switches, I can see why the spring-back switch is so popular. Being able to kill the lights for photos or to not drain the battery is awesome, plus spring-back switches are easy to retrofit where normal switches go. It’s a design that offers more choice for edge cases than Nissan’s solution yet doesn’t reinvent the wheel like Ford and Volkswagen are doing. Let’s hope that America takes note of Canada’s latest headlight solution and codifies something similar into law.
Lead photo credit: Thomas Hundal
As a next topic of discussion:
Can we debate the usefulness of OFF switches in HVAC controls. — My 92, 00, and or 05 Accord didnt have an Off Switch. You got the car started and when you wanted cool air.. you turned the DIAL to BLUE (no, Im not pregnant) and you got cool air. In winter if you wanted hot air.. you turned it to RED.
You knew your motor was workin.. when she was pumpin out hot air….
“[Automatic headlights] considered harmful.” Most — including this article, by and large — still get this wrong.
1. Automatic headlights provably fail in corner cases. E.g., parking garages and tunnels (please turn on your headlights here), fog and other “weather” (high ambient light but low visibility). These situations can easily be predicted by humans, but not by the simple ambient light sensor used by most such systems. The built-in hystersis to avoid flashing the headlights on and off in alternating light and shadow makes them naturally slow to react. As designed, they cannot work in all situations.
2. There are times when one must turn off one’s headlights and DRLs: military bases, stargazing gatherings, campgrounds, when you’re parking facing into that glass-walled restaurant/bar/store/home/whatever. This is especially bad on an upslope. Don’t be that nimrod. Many automatic headlight solutions have an off function but…#3.
3. Automatic headlights teach us to behave stupidly. It’s another way auto manufacturers automate away important controls, teaching us they can be ignored. Most humans tend to ignore things they don’t normally have to think about, like headlights in this instance. Though less of a problem as time goes on, the opportunity for mistakes abounds when switching between cars with automatic headlights and manual. This is why people drive around at night without tail lights or in the rain without any lights, etc.
4. DRLs make sense in low ambient light locales like Canada, Sweden, etc. They make cars more visible in dappled sunlight too. In bright locales, however, they just hide motorcycles (which have had DRLs far longer because they are less visible to others), cars without DRLs, animals, etc. in the bright visual clutter. (Old style DRLs pointing up into the eyes of oncoming drivers — even dimmed — are downright dangerous.)
A good driver can recognize these situations and fix the issue by manually intervening and turning their headlights on or off at appropriate times. I’m not concerned about good drivers. It’s the folks who put little thought or effort into piloting large vehicles. It’s the majority with whom I’m concerned.
I haven’t used one, but as described, the spinny Ford headlight switch seems pretty dumb. Don’t make me look at a panel indicator light down low on the dashboard to figure out what my car is doing. An indicator that’s probably invisible in daylight. And, FWIW, all headlight switches send signals to the body control module. None of them have carried relay or headlight current themselves in a long while.
VW. Please stop “helping.”
07 mk5 rabbit, two positions, DRL and full lights.
No off position, no problem!
no dash lights without full lights
to turn the DRLs off you apply the parking brake,
I’d like to know how to reprogram it to have the taillights light up with the DRLs, but I probably wouldn’t bother to do it, just file it under”good to know”. But … I bet it requires a VAG control thingy
You used to be able to just buy a Euro switch to be able to do all the fancy lighting things like fogs with city lights, but now that it’s probably got a ‘lighting controller’, you’d need the switch AND to code the option in.
As long as a vehicle has auto headlights and they default on, then the only further step that I think needs to be taken is to have them automatically come on when the windshield wipers are active. Aside from that, leave me with an off-switch, please. There are situations where you may want to override the auto lights and creep around in the dark, like turning into a driveway and not blinding (or alerting) those inside the house.
This entire issue arises because DRL’s are mostly cosmetic flourishes. My ’16 Ram 1500 does it correctly. No DRL’s. Auto headlights/taillights come on come on in lower-light situations. Head and taillights also come on when wipers are turned on. Lighted streets are also to blame as the hapless driver doesn’t say “hey, I can’t see, I better turn on my lights.”
I’ve been moaning about this exact issue for years.
One critical element is that the front and rear lights also need to be tied to the WINDSHIELD WIPERS.
the ghost car on a highway at night is bad with good visibility, but ghost cars in traffic with poor conditions and visibility is the worst as it’s usually during heavier trafficked hours
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jeep was a simple plastic tab locking the switch out the off position. In my 2005 Magnum, removing a plastic tab behind the headlight knob unlocked the unlabeled “Auto” option to the left of “off”. All the wiring was in the car from the factory, and the software option to enable automatic headlights with wipers was a hidden setting enabled at the dealer.