Cruise control is a technology that forms part of the suite of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), which allows your car to drive at a constant speed, without you having to have your foot on the accelerator.
In this article, we’ll explain exactly how cruise control works, why it benefits drivers and how best to use it.
How does Cruise control work?
Cruise control is one of the technologies that is a stepping stone to fully autonomous driving, but is also incredibly useful to drivers now. A-roads and motorways are best suited to using cruise control, because traffic is free flowing and there are few stops and starts.
Incredibly, the origins of modern-day cruise control go back to 1948, when a blind American mechanical engineer called Ralph Teetor updated the speed control technology from 18th-Century steam engines.
Cruise control was initially only found in high-end luxury cars, but it has now filtered down to even the smallest city cars.
Using electronic sensors, speed detectors and a control module to maintain a constant level, cruise control enables drivers to set a desired speed. The system then takes control of the accelerator to ensure the vehicle maintains a constant speed, whatever the road surface or wind resistance. If the car is driving up an incline, for example, the system will automatically increase acceleration to compensate and prevent any decrease in speed. The opposite is true when driving downhill: the system reduces acceleration to maintain the preset speed.
You can quickly and easily disengage the cruise control, by pressing the accelerator or brake pedals with your foot.
You can also change or reset the cruise control’s system’s speed with the controls: you can usually increase or lower the speed in 5mph increments.
How to set cruise control
The controls for the different cruise control systems used in different manufacturers’ cars are usually found on either one of the indicator stalks, or on the steering wheel itself. To switch it on, you’ll probably have to press a button marked with the cruise control symbol – which looks like a speedometer with an arrow pointing to a set speed.
As we said, the different manufacturer systems all have their own slightly different ways of operating, but they’re largely the same, with the same buttons:
- Set. This activates the system, so push this button first. The speed of the car when you set the system will be maintained.
- Cancel. This button doesn’t switch the cruise control off, but it pauses the system if you find yourself in slower traffic. Dabbing the brake pedal does the same thing.
- Res or Resume. When you press this, the cruise control is reactivated after a pause and the car returns to the previously set speed.
- Up and Down (or + and -). Use these buttons if you want to adjust the cruise control’s set speed.
The cruise control can also be overridden by using the pedals. When you press on the brake, the system instantly pauses and the car slows down as normal. If you press the accelerator to increase the car’s speed, as soon as you take your foot off the pedal, the cruise control returns the car to its preset speed.
Before using the cruise control in your car the first time, you should check your car’s owner’s manual for specific instructions on using it.
When to use Cruise control
A cruise control system is best used in relatively free-flowing traffic conditions, on faster routes such as motorways or A-roads, where you tend to drive at the same speed for many miles.
With a basic cruise control system (as opposed to an adaptive cruise control system, which we’ll come to in a minute), you might have to switch it on and off often, as the traffic ebbs and flows. With some systems, you’re better off just controlling the speed yourself.
There are also circumstances in which cruise control should not be used.
- Bad weather. In certain weather conditions such as rain, snow, ice, or fog, cruise control should not be switched on. In these conditions, you usually have to adjust your speed frequently, so relying on cruise control could limit your ability to respond quickly to changing road conditions. And when roads are slippery, surfaces can compromise traction and stability, so setting your cruise control could lead to unexpected acceleration or loss of control if the wheels start to spin.
- Heavy traffic. The stop-start nature of congested traffic requires regular braking and acceleration, which a driver manages better than a cruise control system. In these situations, the driver needs full control of the accelerator and brake pedal to respond to the traffic flow.
Twisty roads. Cruise control isn’t suitable for every road you might drive your car on – especially ones with tight bends or steep inclines. Again, these types of roads require constant speed adjustments, which cruise control can’t handle.
- Urban driving. When driving in the city, with its frequent stops, pedestrian crossings and junctions, there are constant speed changes. Cruise control can hinder your ability to respond quickly to traffic signals or unexpected manoeuvres by other road users.
- Towing. If you’re towing a trailer or heavy load, the additional weight can affect the braking distance and handling of the car, so manual control over the acceleration and brakes to safely manage the extra load is essential.
- At night. Using cruise control late at night can be a bad idea, simply because, as a driver, you have less to do while perhaps being low on energy or tired, leading to a loss in concentration.
What are the benefits of using cruise control?
The correct use of cruise control can mean far easier long-distance journeys, with drivers enjoying numerous benefits.
- Comfortable and relaxed driving. Because cruise control eliminates the need for constant pressure on the accelerator pedal, drivers are less tired on long trips. This creates a more relaxing driving experience, especially on motorways and open roads.
- Improved fuel efficiency. Maintaining a constant speed is one way to help optimise your car’s fuel consumption. Cruise control helps you avoid abrupt acceleration or deceleration, which reduces fuel wastage. You’ll find your car returning better economy, saving you money.
- Less wear and tear. Another benefit of cruise control’s ability to maintain a steady speed is the positive impact it has on your vehicle’s wear and tear. Frequent acceleration and deceleration stresses various components such as the engine and brakes. Minimising abrupt changes in speed helps to reduce the strain on these components, which could reduce the need for repairs.
- Speed regulation. Cruise control prevents you from speeding unintentionally, because the system automatically adjusts acceleration to keep the vehicle at a preset speed. This is particularly useful on sections of road with average speed limits.
- Fewer speeding tickets. If cruise control stops you from speeding unintentionally, it helps reduce the risk of incurring fines for speeding.
- Focus on the road. By handing over speed control to the cruise control system, drivers can focus more on the road ahead, increasing awareness and improving overall safety. With less to think about, in terms of the act of driving, a driver can potentially concentrate more on identifying potential hazards, maintaining lane discipline and reacting quickly to unexpected situations.
What is adaptive cruise control?
Adaptive cruise control (ACC) is a more advanced version of the basic cruise control system, incorporating sensors and radar technology to automatically adjust the vehicle’s speed and maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. The radar, camera or lasers located at the front of the car can detect vehicles up to 200 metres ahead.
When an adaptive cruise control system is switched on, drivers can set their desired speed (as with basic cruise control), but it also enables you to set a preferred following distance from the car ahead. The system then scans the road ahead and detects other vehicles around it. Sensors constantly measure the distance between your vehicle and the one ahead, adjusting the car’s speed accordingly to maintain a preset gap.
When the system detects a vehicle in front that’s moving slower than you, it automatically reduces your speed, either by easing off the accelerator or applying the brakes, to maintain the desired stopping distance. Once the road ahead is clear, the system gets the car back up to the preset speed.
As with regular cruise control, ACC systems vary from one manufacturer to another, with most designed only to detect vehicles in front of you: they might not be able to spot people or other objects in front of the car.
And also like standard cruise control, adaptive cruise control is of no use on twisty roads, because it can’t sense the road ahead.
ACC systems are increasingly being used with other ADAS technologies, such as traffic sign recognition, enabling car to identify the current speed limit and adjust your speed accordingly.
Traffic jam assist is a development of ACC, for use in congested, stop-start traffic. When the speed of the traffic falls, your car will reduce the gap to the car in front, and stop right behind it if the traffic suddenly grinds to a halt. If you remain stationary for more than a couple of seconds, you might need to tap the accelerator to get the car going again and reactivate cruise control, although some systems automatically take off again from a standstill, and others will alert the driver when the motionless car ahead begins to move away.
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