Tech’splaining: What is Adaptive Cruise Control, How Does It Work?

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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Set it and forget it. That’s how Ron Popeil hawked his Ronco rotisserie chicken roaster on TV back in the 1990s, and that describes how you use adaptive cruise control today.

  • Adaptive Cruise Control is a Level 1 Autonomous driving aid which maintains either a set speed or follows a slower vehicle at a user specified distance.
  • Not all Adaptive Cruise Control systems work the same, understanding the differences is important when choosing a vehicle.
  • Although convenient, these systems still require the driver to maintain focus in case of emergency situations.

Like with a standard cruise control system, a driver chooses a specific speed for the adaptive cruise control system to maintain. Additionally, adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts vehicle speed to maintain a safe distance from traffic ahead. Drivers decide whether that following distance is closer or farther, depending on personal preference.

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International, adaptive cruise control is a Level 1 autonomous driving system. When combined with an active lane-keeping assist system, it graduates to a Level 2 autonomous system. Even at Level 2, however, it requires attention from an alert and vigilant driver. Learn more about these different levels of autonomy.

How Does Adaptive Cruise Control Work?

Audi Adaptive Cruise Control Illustration
This rendering from Audi shows how different types of sensors can work in conjunction with adaptive cruise control. (Audi)

 

Adaptive cruise control uses laser sensors, radar sensors, or cameras in order to identify vehicles ahead and to determine the distance between your car and the other vehicles. In turn, that information informs the braking and acceleration adjustments that maintain a safe following distance.

Laser-based adaptive cruise control requires that vehicles ahead have a reflective surface. Therefore, it might not sense a matte-finish car or a dirty car on the road ahead. To work properly, the laser sensor must be exposed, which creates unsightly design problems. Toyota used laser adaptive cruise control in the 2000s but has since switched to radar-based systems.

Radar-based adaptive cruise control is popular because automakers can hide the sensors behind plastic body panels or the front grille, improving vehicle styling. Radar-based systems may use a single sensor or multiple sensors. Systems with multiple sensors can gather more data and typically work with greater accuracy and refinement. Most modern vehicles use radar-based adaptive cruise control.

Camera-based adaptive cruise control typically uses dual stereo cameras. Software processes the images to determine the distance to vehicles ahead and to adjust vehicle speed accordingly. Subaru’s EyeSight technology is the best-known example of this type of adaptive cruise control.

Know What Your Adaptive Cruise Control Does Before Driving

Snow covered Kia Telluride
During testing in a blizzard, snow covered this Kia Telluride’s front end. The adaptive cruise control, and all driving aids, stopped functioning until the snow melted. (Christian Wardlaw)

 

Adaptive cruise control systems do not work the same way. It is important to know how yours works before using it:

  • Some systems work within a limited vehicle speed range
  • Some are full-speed-range systems that bring your vehicle to a full stop
  • Some include stop-and-go capability, either automatically resuming speed when traffic starts to move again or doing so with a prompt from the driver, such as tapping the accelerator pedal or pushing the Resume button on the steering wheel
  • Some try to predict required braking situations by looking one vehicle ahead
  • Some vehicles offer both standard cruise control and adaptive cruise control because some people don’t like the adaptive systems

Remember that adaptive cruise control cannot stop your vehicle if you’re approaching stopped or very slow traffic at speed. If you’re going 70 mph, come over a hill, and stopped cars are ahead, you’d better be ready to jam your foot on the brake pedal and possibly swerve to avoid an accident.

Know, too, that weather conditions can adversely impact adaptive cruise control operation. Snow, bright sunlight, dark shadows, water, and fog can cause the adaptive cruise control to stop working.

Studies show that adaptive cruise control systems (and automatic emergency braking systems) are effective at reducing collisions with vehicles ahead. So go ahead: set it and forget it. Just remember that you need to be ready to take control at any time.

RELATED CONTENT:

Ford Co-Pilot 360 Technology Review

Hyundai Smart Sense Technology Review

Kia Drive Wise Technology Review

Tech’splaining: What is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0?


About the Author

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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