Do Car Headlights Turn on Automatically?

Polished car headlight turned on

Turning on and off your headlights could not only be annoying, but it could be super dangerous if you forget or do it at the wrong time. A lot of people love automatic headlights, but do all car headlights turn on automatically?

A lot of modern cars offer headlights that turn on automatically. These are called automatic headlights and they’re activated by switching your dial to the “AUTO” setting for your headlights if your car has that option. Older cars don’t have this feature. When this setting is selected, your car headlights will turn on automatically whenever they’re needed (thanks to a few helpful sensors).

I’m going to be talking all about headlights today. I’ll discuss automatic ones, auto high beams, and some great benefits of automatic headlights. The bottom line is that I’m going to tell you whether or not car headlights turn on automatically.

Quick Definition of Headlights

If you own or lease a car or operate one, you should already know what headlights are. For those who don’t, they’re the light-emitting parts at the front of your vehicle.

When it’s dark out, headlights will shine in front of your vehicle and illuminate the road, obstacles, and the sides of the road.

What Are Automatic Headlights?

Traditionally, headlights have to be turned on and off by using a lever or switch near your steering wheel. There are typically a few options like fog lights, parking lights, high beams, and standard headlights.

In most modern cars, there’s an added option of “automatic headlights”. When this setting is turned on, your car’s headlights will automatically turn on and off when the situation calls for it.

Interior view of the headlight switch of a Mercedes Benz GLS 350D SUV

The major two events that will trigger the headlights to turn on are when it gets too dark or when your windshield wipers are on.

18 states require you to turn your headlights on when your windshield wipers are going. Even outside of these states, it’s a good idea to turn on your lights when it’s raining. After all, visibility will be diminished so it will be harder for other drivers to spot you.

Do Car Headlights Turn on Automatically?

In a lot of modern cars, automatic headlights come standard. Even a base-model Honda Civic comes standard with auto headlights.

It means that any time your headlight setting is set to “auto”, your car’s headlights will turn on automatically.

Which Cars Offer Automatic Headlights

Last year, Japan rolled out a new mandate that all newly manufactured vehicles made in Japan need to come equipped with automatic headlights. This means any Japanese vehicle made after April 1, 2020, should have headlights that turn on automatically.

In general, most modern vehicles have a setting for automatic headlights. How can you tell if you have this setting? Take a look at the knob or stick that you use to control your headlights.

If one of the options has text that says “AUTO”, then you have automatic headlights.

Interior light switch inside the car

If you want to test this, then hop into your car tonight when it’s dark out. Switch your headlights to the “AUTO” setting and make sure they turn on.

This is also a good opportunity to see what your other lights do. Take turns swapping to each setting then going outside of your car and looking at the front then rear lights.

Keep in mind, a lot of older cars don’t offer automatic headlights. This is a newer development.

How Automatic Headlights Work

The technology behind automatic headlights isn’t super complicated. Somewhere along the base of your windshield, you’ll find a photoelectric sensor. This is a type of sensor that is used to digitally “see” things. It could be looking for a certain distance, color, level of light, or object.

In this case, it’s looking for a level of light.

The photoelectric eye is staring in front of your car and analyzing how well-lit the environment in front of you is. If it notices that things are getting too dark outside, it will send a signal to the brains of your car and request that your headlights be turned on.

There’s also a built-in timer that makes automatic headlights more reliable. It requires the photoelectric eye to detect darkness for a certain number of seconds before the car decides to turn on the headlights.

SUV near an old metal bridge with headllights turned on in foggy darkness

Without this timer, your headlights would flash repeatedly whenever you drive under a shadow, or a cloud passes over the sun.

There’s another sensor that also plays into your automatic headlights. It’s tied into your wipers.

If your wipers are on a certain speed for a certain amount of time, your car will also turn on your headlights (as long as the “AUTO” setting is selected for your lights).

Again, this has to do with visibility. When it’s raining outside, drivers can’t see as well. As such, having your headlights on will help other drivers spot you and avoid running into you.

All About Automatic High Beams

Some cars take this idea one step further and introduce automatic high beams. As you know, high beams are the much brighter brother of the headlight. They’re reserved specifically for when no cars are in front of you.

On backroads, drivers might find themselves flipping the high beams on and off repeatedly as cars drive forwards them and pass.

With auto highs, this struggle is removed. Your car will use a secondary sensor that looks for approaching cars. If it doesn’t see one, then it will automatically turn on your high beams. Once it sees a car approaching, it will turn your highs off and go back to your standard headlights.

This process lets you optimize your visibility without blinding other drivers in the area.

Bonus: What Are Adaptive Headlights?

The final version of headlights I want to talk about is “adaptive headlights”. The big difference with this style is that it will turn on secondary headlights that let you see when your car turns.

For instance, you might have another headlight to the right of your standard one. It is aimed at an angle to the right. When you turn your steering wheel a certain amount to the right, some cars will automatically turn on this secondary headlight which will illuminate the road through the turn you’re about to take.

Car with adaptive headlights

It helps a lot when you’re driving at night on a windy road. Remember, traditional headlights only show you what’s immediately in front of the car. These adaptive headlights will illuminate the road through different turns and curves of the road.

In other cars, the main headlights will physically rotate to the left or right as your car moves (rather than using secondary headlights).

When Do Auto Headlights Turn Off?

Automatic headlights wouldn’t serve a purpose if they didn’t also automatically turn off. After the car is turned off, you exit the tunnel, the rain clears up, or you exit the shady section of the road, you want your headlights to turn off again.

In all of these cases, there is a built-in turn-off timer. It will vary a lot from car to car, but the absolute maximum time is about 5 minutes.

In general, your lights will turn off within a minute or two without any input from you.

Why Are Automatic Headlights So Great?

Automatic headlights might seem like a cool invention on the surface, but there are even more reasons why they’re so great that might not be super apparent just yet. Here are some of the major reasons why people love their auto headlights.

Avoid Killing Your Battery

Arguably one of the biggest benefits of automatic headlights is the ability to avoid killing your battery. How frustrating is it to wake up to a dead battery because you forgot to turn off your headlights overnight? I’m guilty of doing this a number of times back in the day.

Then you’re forced to jump-start your car. Luckily, I have a self-jumping battery, so I don’t need a buddy to help me, but it’s still annoying.

Automatic headlights will automatically turn off when the car is turned off. As long as you’re not idling your car overnight (which is a bad idea anyway), your lights will turn off and your battery will be saved.

Never Be Left in the Dark

Ever wondered why your trip home seems so much darker today? Did they do something to the streetlights on this particular night? Probably not. You probably just forgot to turn on your headlights or you just have your parking lights on.

In either case, automatic headlights will come to the rescue.

Subaru car on the side of the road with headlights on at night

You’ll see the road much better in front of you.

Sometimes you might not think it’s dark enough to put your lights on yet, but automatic headlights will prove you wrong. You can’t drive without seeing the road, after all.

Help Yourself Be Seen

The other part of headlights is to help other drivers see you. With automatic headlights, you’ll dramatically help yourself be seen.

One of the worst things on the road at night is a driver who forgot to turn on their lights, especially if their car is black.

This leads to a ton of accidents every year. If someone can’t see you, they can’t avoid you which could lead to high-speed collisions.

Go Through Tunnels with Ease

Another big headache is going through a tunnel without automatic headlights. A lot of drivers will forget to turn their headlights on which results in a potentially dangerous situation.

A lot of tunnels have reduced visibility since there’s no sunlight. They have lights in the tunnel, but they’re often not bright enough to fully illuminate things.

With automatic headlights, your headlights will turn on once you enter the tunnel and they’ll turn off once you leave it.

Car driving inside a tunnel

Remove Human Error and Optimize Your Vision

Some drivers get distracted by trying to follow the curve of the road or dealing with traffic around them. This could lead them to forget to turn on their lights.

Even worse, a driver might forget to turn off their high beams and blind all the drivers in front of them.

With auto headlights, you’re removing a lot of the human error that goes into operating your lights. Whether that means forgetting to turn on your lights or forgetting to turn off your high beams — auto lights will optimize your vision on the road. It’s just one less thing to worry about.

The Bottom Line: You’ll Be Safer

The bottom line is that automatic headlights will help you be safer in your car during times when visibility is impeded. With improved visibility of the road around you and visibility of your car for other drivers, your chances of an accident will go down.

Conclusion

There’s a lot going on when it comes to your car’s headlights. If you have an automatic headlight selection, I’d highly suggest keeping your car on that forever. Auto headlights do a lot of good for you. For more car guides and information, explore the rest of my blog. Be sure to see my list of car products that everyone needs.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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