How Does Adaptive Cruise Control Work?

How Does Adaptive Cruise Control Work?


Since the dawn of personal vehicle ownership, federal regulators in the United States, and car manufacturers around the world, have maintained a heavy focus on improving the safety of driving in almost any type of environment. From rural roads to packed urban highways, innovations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have centered on convenience, assistance, and improved safety through features like blind spot monitoring, backup cameras, and cruise control.

ACC dual radar MB S-Class 2008

ACC dual radar MB S-Class 2008

Cruise control itself is perhaps one of the most popular features among American car buyers specifically. The United States, unlike countries in Europe and Asia, features roads that are, for the most part, wider, longer straighter, and capable of handling more traffic. Cruise control is a perfect fit for this type of driving, and it helps to make driving both more consistent and more safe in many cases. Adaptive cruise control ups the ante on automation and safety with new features that can “sense” other vehicles and adapt cruise control settings to real-time conditions on the road. This type of technology makes driving safer, may help combat distracted driving collisions, and is paving the way for even bigger developments in automated driving that will radically transform driving in the years to come.

Adaptive Cruise Control: What Is It, Exactly?

adaptive-cruise-controlLet’s take a few steps back before defining adaptive cruise control, and instead focus on what traditional cruise control involves. Basic cruise control systems depend on a computerized interface between the steering console and the engine. When the user accelerates to a certain speed, and sets the cruise control to maintain that speed, computers work alongside the engine to accelerate and brake as needed to maintain a given speed while changing lanes, scaling hills, or coasting down an incline. This is a relatively basic system: It is only focused on setting and maintaining a given speed until the user turns it off by braking or using a switch mounted inside the passenger cabin.

Adaptive cruise control is a total rethinking of what it means to “cruise” on today’s highways. Instead of being focused only on maintaining a given speed at any cost, adaptive cruise control is focused on maintaining and adjusting a speed in response to many other variables. An adaptive system uses laser and radar systems to sense obstructions that might necessitate slowing down or even stopping the vehicle. While traditional cruise control would require the driver to brake or turn off their cruise control system to accommodate such obstructions, an adaptive system can sense what’s in front of the driver and automatically adjust speed to ensure safety.

Laser vs. Radar: How Do These Technologies Differ?

adaptive-cruise-control-featuredLaser adaptive cruise control was the first safety technology to market that promised to make cruise control smarter by keeping tabs on the vehicle in front of a driver after setting their cruising speed. To that end, laser technologies tend to suffer from a few first-to-market drawbacks. First and foremost, laser systems struggle to perform accurately in inclement weather conditions. They can also fail to see vehicles that are dirty and non-reflective, which could cause issues if a driver is not paying attention. Laser systems also must be visibly mounted at the front of the vehicle. Radar systems, by comparison, are not impacted by weather or reflectivity issues. They can also be mounted internally, without affecting the vehicle’s design or aesthetics.

Adaptive Cruise Control Advantages

  • Drivers can use cruise control even in heavy traffic without constant braking and turning the feature off.
  • A sensing cruise control system is safer in more congested areas.
  • Adaptive cruise control can help combat collisions caused by distracted driving.
  • Adaptive systems pave the way for further automated driving features in the future.

Adaptive Cruise Control Disadvantages

  • Some adaptive systems, especially those powered by lasers, are not 100 percent accurate.
  • Adaptive cruise is still not a foolproof, fully automated driving experience.
  • The feature almost always costs extra when added to today’s vehicles.

A Clear Pathway to the Future of Driving

Adaptive cruise control is one of the first features of the automated future of driving to be integrated into today’s vehicles. The system’s use of radar and lasers to sense obstructions is just the beginning of what’s possible in terms of automated, fully communicative driving. This technology is being developed even further, and paired with things like vehicle-to-vehicle communications, omnidirectional vehicle detection and awareness systems, and driverless technology that can be used on both highways and city streets to ensure excellent safety.

Today, adaptive cruise control is an excellent feature to make traditional highway cruising safer, smarter, and better prepared for distractions. Tomorrow, it may well serve as the gateway to automated commutes that are powered entirely by smart communications and sensors.

About the author: Matthew Young is a Boston based freelance writer. As an aspiring automotive journalist looking to make a name for myself in the industry, he is passionate about covering anything on 4 wheels. When Matthew is not busy writing about cars or new emerging tech, he usually spends time fiddling with his camera and learning a thing or two about photography. You can tweet him @mattbeardyoung

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