What You Need to Know About Cruise Control


Are advanced adaptive cruise control systems worth it?

Read in this article:

Distinguishing Between Basic and Adaptive Cruise Control

They've been equipped on vehicles for many decades, but what does cruise control actually do in a car? Early examples did little more than maintain a selected speed, with the driver then taking over if that speed becomes unsafe for any reason. This reduces fatigue or the likelihood of inadvertently exceeding the speed limit, especially over longer distances. Cruise control is what many Americans demand, owing to our extensive road network.

Modern systems, often termed adaptive cruise control (ACC), are far more advanced. They quite literally 'adapt' to changing traffic conditions. These systems utilize several sensors to automatically keep an appropriate following distance from the preceding car. Without human intervention, the car can slow down or accelerate, accounting for the typical fluctuations in speed that occur in everyday driving.

ACC was once the preserve of luxury sedans, but now it can be found on nearly any SUV and even hard-working trucks.

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What’s in a Name - Different Types of Adaptive Cruise Control Systems

Not only are there different kinds of cruise control systems, but depending on the manufacturer, they will have unique names. Below are a few examples of similar systems but with different names:

  • BMW's Dynamic Cruise Control or Active Cruise Control
  • Cadillac's Super Cruise
  • Tesla's Autopilot
  • Nissan's Intelligent Cruise Control
  • Mercedes-Benz's Active Distance Assist Distronic

So, what is an ACC system from BMW and how does it differ from one made by Audi or Mercedes? Fundamentally, many of these systems function in exactly the same way and merely carry unique names. In some cases, an aftermarket system can be fitted to a vehicle without standard speed control. If you take this route, make sure that the installation is done by a reputable company.

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How Does Modern Cruise Control Work?

Adaptive cruise control is what makes semi-autonomous driving possible. In general, a car with ACC incorporates some combination of radar sensors, lasers, and cameras to identify other vehicles or obstacles in the vicinity. Radar- and laser-based systems both make use of sensors integrated into the vehicle's front fascia. This information is transmitted to the car's mechanical systems, which respond accordingly. That's a cruise control definition in a nutshell.

Notably, a laser-based sensor can struggle during storms or other periods of low visibility. Radar cruise control is used by automakers like Toyota. Another type is binocular computer vision systems, where tiny cameras installed on the back of the rearview mirror can pick up on objects ahead of your car.

Some iterations of a cruise control system will merely alert the driver to take action if a preceding vehicle gets too close. Other systems will take evasive action and brake the car automatically. Modern stop-and-go systems, often termed traffic jam assist, takes the hassle out of navigating rush hour traffic.

In terms of mechanical speed control, an actuator is employed to which a cable is connected. This setup actuates the throttle valve, effectively performing the same job as you would if you depressed the gas pedal with your foot. Another component is the speed control module, effectively the "brains" behind the system that remembers the desired speed.

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How to Operate Cruise Control

It's always a good idea to consult your owner's manual for guidance on how to use cruise control. As with many vehicle functions like switching on lights, operating the ventilation system, or even using the indicator, each automaker does things slightly differently. For the most part, the process is the same. You will set your desired speed as well as the gap you'd like to maintain from the preceding vehicle. From there, it's simple. The car does the hard work and will stick to either the chosen speed, the following distance, or both simultaneously.

However, as systems differ, it's important to take some time to acclimatize to your car's specific ACC. Some will only provide minimal braking before we need to intervene, while other cars can stop completely. In both cases, it's important to remain focused on your surroundings. Some vehicles allow you to choose how aggressively the system slows down or picks up speed. At times, you may want to stick to the basic speed control setting when there will be minimal slowing down.

In inclement weather conditions or when it's raining, the sensors can't always operate as effectively. In these conditions, it's advised not to use the ACC. If the feature is not working as you know it should, it's best not to activate it at all.

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Two Sides to Every Story - The Pros and Cons of Adaptive Cruise Control

If used responsibly, we believe that the benefits of ACC outweigh the downsides. Still, it's worth looking at the full picture, especially if ACC is an option you are unsure of whether to specify on your new car:

  • Convenience: An ACC system makes commuting easier by reducing the need to manually brake or accelerate. This can lower driver fatigue.
  • Fuel Efficiency: Does cruise control save gas? Yes, it can. Much in the same way that a smooth driving style without harsh use of the throttle or brake does, in fact. By maintaining a constant speed for long periods, you can reduce your gas bill.
  • Wear and Tear: By not braking or accelerating unnecessarily, ACC is potentially less taxing on your vehicle's components in the long run.
  • Eliminate Speeding Fines: It's easy to accidentally exceed the speed limit on the long road. However, an ACC system prevents this from happening.
  • No Standardization: Not all ACC systems work well. Some are overly aggressive, actually proving to be more annoying than if they were switched off.
  • Driver Distraction: Because drivers don't have to operate the pedals, they can become more distracted and too reliant on the ACC if something goes wrong.
  • Expensive: Some automakers like Porsche still charge high prices for this feature, even on already expensive models. For instance, ACC will cost over $1,500 on a Porsche 718 Cayman. In another example, adding adaptive cruise control to a base Mercedes C-Class requires a package that goes for around $1,700.
  • Twisty Roads: Adaptive or automatic cruise control set at a high speed for straight-line driving can sometimes see a driver enter a curved road at a faster speed than is safe.

Before buying a particular model with ACC, it's worth going for an extended test drive to ascertain if the feature improves your driving experience.

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How do you set cruise control?

If you're wondering how to set cruise control up, most systems require you to reach your desired speed and press a "set" button or switch to maintain that speed. The system typically deactivates if the brake pedal is pressed or if the clutch is used in manual cars. In cars with ACC, an additional step will be required to choose this option over the regular cruise function.

How does adaptive cruise control work?

Intelligent cruise control also maintains a certain speed but additionally uses sensors to gauge the distance between your car and the preceding car. Using this information, ACC allows you to keep the same distance at all times, with automatic braking and acceleration.

What is the difference between cruise control and active cruise control?

Where a more basic system mostly only maintains the desired speed, a dynamic radar cruise control system can also make automatic adjustments based on changing traffic conditions. Should a car in front of you slow down, ACC initiates a braking response, for example.

Is ACC dangerous?

Any partially autonomous driving system is only safe when working in conjunction with an attentive driver. Nobody should rely entirely on ACC or any other driver-assist technology. When used responsibly, ACC can actually improve safety by reducing driving fatigue.

Does cruise control use more gas?

Yes and no. During extensive highway driving on level ground, this system can certainly improve gas mileage by maintaining the same speed. However, the system is less effective when your vehicle encounters inclines and the system tries to maintain the same set speed. This can be a problem if you often drive through hilly areas.

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