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Little by little, modern technology is eroding the act of driving from the driver. Gearheads won’t care much for these advancements, but for regular people who want to get from A to B as easily as possible, they’re marvelous. And cruise control is one of the best features for helping drivers take a load off on long journeys. 

But for a technology that’s been around for quite some time now, there’s still mystery behind cruise control; how it works, who invented it, and when it was first introduced to a mass-market vehicle. Never fear, as Car Bibles’ crack team of writers has put together an informational guide to explain what cruise control is and how and when to use it. We included a few more things that should also satiate your informational appetite. 

What Is Cruise Control?

Cruise control is a system that keeps a vehicle traveling at a predetermined speed without the driver needing to use the accelerator pedal. The driver sets the speed and can adjust it using either wheel-mounted buttons, a stalk behind the steering wheel, or through the vehicle’s infotainment system on some new EVs while driving. And you can disengage it by applying the brake, the clutch pedal in a manual-equipped car, or turning the system off via a button.

Who Invented Cruise Control?

Cruise control was invented by Ralph Teetor, a blind engineer, in 1948 as a way to help motorists stick to the 35 mph speed limit imposed due to oil rations. Another belief is that the idea for cruise control was born out of Teetor’s frustration with the jerky nature by which his lawyer drove… Teetor’s name for the system wasn’t cruise control, but rather ‘speedostat’ and the 1958 Chrysler Imperial was the first-ever model to use one. Chrysler called the feature ‘auto-pilot’ (oh, boy) but later renamed it ‘cruise control’ in the 1960s.

How Has Cruise Control Evolved Throughout the Years?

Teetor’s first iteration of cruise control used a vacuum-driven piston, which stopped the gas pedal at a certain point. However, this wasn’t good enough as it just stopped the driver from going faster rather than keeping them at a constant speed.

The next iteration of cruise control was used on the 1958 Imperial and involved a device that counted the rotations of the vehicle’s drive shaft to calculate its speed. The device then used a bi-directional screw-drive electric motor to vary the throttle position and maintain the pre-selected speed.

Teetor’s solution was analog, but we live in a digital age and since the early 1990s, manufacturers have been using digital technology to enable drivers to effortlessly maintain their speed. Manufacturers use different technologies depending on how advanced they want the cruise control to be, but this is the list of technologies that are used today: LiDAR, radar, sonar, and camera-based solutions.

The most advanced type of cruise control is adaptive cruise control (ACC) which uses one of the radar technologies mentioned above to lock on to the vehicle in front of you and match its speed, keeping you 2-3 seconds behind them at all times. If the car ahead slows down, so do you, and likewise, if it speeds up.

How Does the Technology Behind Cruise Control Work? 

Since there are a couple of different types of cruise control, we’ll go through them individually.  

Traditional Cruise Control

There are cars on the road today that still use traditional cruise control, so it’s important to know how it works. A traditional cruise control system can determine your vehicle’s speed in several including, via a rotating driveshaft, speedometer cable, or wheel speed sensor. Once you’ve set your desired speed the cruise control system will maintain it by pulling and holding the throttle cable with a solenoid, vacuum-driven servomechanism, or by using built-in electrical systems (if the car uses a drive-by-wire throttle system).

Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)

There are more cars on the road than ever, which gives adaptive cruise control (ACC) an advantage over traditional cruise control. This type of cruise control slows your car down and speeds it up in relation to the pace of the vehicle in front of you. 

After you’ve set your desired speed, a radar sensor located on the front of your car locks on to the vehicle ahead of you. Information from the radar is sent to your car’s computer, such as the distance between your vehicle and the one in front and the speed at which it’s traveling. Your computer then controls both the accelerator and brakes as necessary to keep you 2-3 seconds behind the car in front. How it adjusts the throttle and brake system is similar to one of the methods used on a traditional cruise control system.

Some ACC systems, particularly older ones, won’t adjust your car’s speed relative to the one in front. Instead, they will give you an audible warning if you’re getting too close.

Other Benefits of Cruise Control

Cruise control isn’t just limited to reducing the strain of keeping your foot on the gas pedal, there are other benefits.

Better Fuel Economy

As soon as you start your engine, you’re burning fuel, but accelerating to the speed you desire burns quite a bit more than sitting at a steady speed. So, if you’re driving along the highway and your speed fluctuates by 1-5 mph repeatedly, over a few hours, this adds up to a lower mpg figure than if you’d stayed at the same speed for the whole trip. Studies have shown that if you set your cruise control to 60 mph, your fuel efficiency could improve by up to 17.2-percent, but this figure varies greatly depending on vehicle model, road conditions, and driving style.

More Comfortable

Long drives are tiring, and making minor adjustments to your speed and road position at all times takes its toll over a few hours. But, when you set up your cruise control, there’s one less thing to think about. Physically, it’s less tiresome too, as you get to rest both feet on the floor.

Stop Speeding

You can easily slip a few mph over the speed limit if you’re not paying enough attention. Setting up cruise control takes this error out of the equation and means you don’t need to worry about getting a speeding ticket.

Drawbacks to Cruise Control

As with anything, there can be drawbacks to a technology. Here are a few of cruise control’s.  

Drowsy Drivers

Drivers that use cruise control tend to be less alert, according to a study conducted by the VINCI Autoroutes Foundation for Responsible Driving. It found that drivers using cruise control have decreased vigilance, impaired reaction times, and “less control overtaking other vehicles and managing the direction of their own vehicles.”.

Slower Reaction Time

Carrying on from the point above, since you’re less alert when using cruise control, your reactions tend to be slower. So if a hazard presents itself while you’re using cruise control, it’s likely that you’ll be a bit slower to hit the brakes than if you hadn’t been using the system. If you’re using certain ACC systems, it mitigates this risk somewhat as they can actively engage the brakes for you.

Not Great in Bad Weather

We make on-the-fly adjustments while driving, and this is even more apparent in bad weather. When it’s raining heavily, for example, and you approach a pool of water on the highway, most people automatically slow down before the puddle to decrease the risk of aquaplaning. Traditional cruise control systems don’t adjust for hazardous road conditions and could lead to you losing control of your vehicle.

How Do You Use Cruise Control?

How you set up cruise control can vary from model to model, but it generally goes something like this. First, hit the cruise-control button, which usually has a speedometer icon on it with an arrow pointing to it from the outer circle. Next, set your speed using the plus or minus buttons, which are normally located next to the cruise-control button.

There’s traditionally a button to temporarily cancel cruise control, and it might show the letters ‘can’. When you want to resume cruise control, simply hit the resume button, which often shows the letters ‘res’. To shut the system off entirely, hit the cruise-control button again. Applying force to the brake or clutch pedals will also disengage the cruise control system. To find out precisely how your vehicle’s system operates, refer to the owner’s manual.

FAQs About Cruise Control 

Car Bibles answers all of your burning questions.

Q. What models currently feature cruise control? 

A. The question should be, what car models don’t feature cruise control? Cruise control is standard on the vast majority of all new cars and, if any model doesn’t have it, it’s probably an optional extra.

Q. When should you use cruise control?

A. It’s best to use cruise control when there’s little to no traffic, and you’re traveling on long straight roads that have high-speed limits, and keep the same speed limit for long stretches. 

Q. How do you stop cruise control?

A. You can disengage a car’s cruise control system by applying your vehicle’s brake pedal. If you drive a manual, you can also disengage the system by using the clutch pedal. When you’re finished using the system, you can also hit the cruise-control button, which shuts it off completely.

Learn More About Cruise Control From This Video

The concept and usage of cruise control aren’t too hard to wrap your cerebellum around but it’s often easier to comprehend when you can see it in action as words only go so far. That’s why we grabbed this video as it illustrates what we talked about above. 

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