ROMULUS, MI – Saying Washington’s headlamp test standard is “grossly out of date,” a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) official predicts change will come quickly with the advent of 42-volt technology.

“I promise NHTSA will up the 12.8 volts,” Stephen Kratzke says, referring to the agency’s current regulation. It calls for headlamps to meet a performance standard based on a test voltage of 12.8.

But the auto industry must first make its intentions clear, says Kratzke, NHTSA’s associate administrator of safety performance standards. “If you can give some guidance on which way you’re going, we can start rulemaking immediately,” he says while updating industry representatives on the status of various NHTSA research projects.

What’s unclear to Washington is whether the industry plans a wholesale push toward 42-volt architecture, or a transitional strategy employing 14-volt architecture. “My concern would be, if we invest a lot of energy and resources in doing (the latter) and then manufacturers say, ‘Oh, well. Never mind. We’ve decided to use a 42-volt lamp,’” Kratzke says.

The existing regulation – FMVSS No. 108 – is outdated because today’s vehicles have so many power features they demand electrical systems with higher voltages. As a result, headlamps routinely receive more than 12.8 volts of current.

“So we are way under-testing right now,” Kratzke says. “A move to 42 volts, I think, might be enough to get our attention.” And if the benchmark becomes 42 volts, he adds, the remedy is simple: NHTSA increases its test voltage to 42.

The issue first was raised by a General Motors Corp. representative, who says the industry will “see several generations of systems.” They will feature voltages of 12.8, 14 and 41 – in various configurations, he adds. And they could become available by 2003.

The discussion “has big implications for glare,” Kratzke says, noting NHTSA’s call for public comment on that subject comes to an end in December (see “Spotlight on Glare” in the November issue of Ward’s AutoWorld). “If we’re looking at glare and you up the voltage, you up the light output which might not be a good idea,” he says.

General safety is another unknown. “Are there special hazards in the event of a crash with a 42-volt system that are not present with a 12-volt system? We don’t know right now. We haven’t seen it,” Kratzke says. “Maybe there’s a need to do something beyond what we’ve done for the nominal 12-volt system. But we don’t expect to change our crash protection standards or braking standards or anything else to address 42-volt.”