What is cruise control?

From maintaining a set speed to driving your car in traffic jams: the complete guide to cruise control systems

BuyaCar team
Sep 28, 2021

Cruise control is a clever system that regulates your engine to keep your car driving at a set speed without you having to use the accelerator. You hit a switch to activate it and set your required speed, then the car takes control of the accelerator and adjusts the power input automatically to maintain that speed. It will also sense when you're going up hills and deliver more power when necessary.

When you drive with cruise control engaged, it essentially means your right foot doesn’t need to be pressed down on the accelerator during long trips. So you'll get something of a rest when you're just cruising along the motorway. It also takes away the temptation to speed - assuming you set it at the speed limit - and means you can sit back with confidence without having to worry about hidden speed cameras. In most cars, you'll still need to brake and steer though.

Cruise control was revolutionary when it was first introduced all the way back in 1958 by American car manufacturer Chrysler. It now features on the majority of new cars currently on sale and plenty of used cars too.

More advanced systems such as adaptive cruise control have been introduced, too. This, on top of standard cruise control, uses sensors to detect vehicles ahead and if you come across a slower moving vehicle your car will reduce its speed or even begin to apply the brakes to maintain a safe distance. The very latest systems are able to slow the car down to a stop, but emergency braking is still required by the driver when needed.

It's a very popular development in general, but some drivers remain nervous about leaving the car to do part of the work. If you're interested in finding yourself a used car with cruise control though, you can head over to our BuyaCar search page to get started. If you'd like to know more, we've got all the details on how it works right here.

How do you operate cruise control?

Typically, the controls required to operate it are grouped on one of the car’s indicator stalks or on the steering wheel.

To switch it on, you’ll often need to press a button marked with the symbol for cruise control: a speedometer symbol with an arrow pointing to a set speed (seen on the stalk below).

The most common way to operate cruise control is by using the following buttons:

Set Push this to activate the system. It’ll hold the speed the car is doing.

Cancel Not the off switch but a button that just pauses the system, if you get stuck behind a slower car, for example. Touching the brake pedal does the same thing.

Res or Resume Press this to reactivate the cruise control after it’s paused. The car will return to the speed you originally set.

Up and Down (also + and -) These adjust the cruise control’s set speed. If you’re on a motorway and approach a set of road works with a lower speed limit, you can press the minus button to reduce the set speed, for example.

You can always override cruise control by using the vehicle’s pedals: pressing the brake will instantly pause the system and slow the car in exactly the same way as if the system was switched off. Pressing the accelerator will increase the car’s speed. When you take your foot off the pedal, the cruise control will usually remain on and return the car to its set speed.

When do you use cruise control?

A basic cruise control system is best on fast, empty routes such as motorways or A-roads, where you can keep going at the same speed for miles at a time. Having to keep switching it on and off can get a bit tiresome, and you will often find using simpler systems is more trouble than just controlling the speed yourself.

As a result, it's not very well suited to driving around town in traffic or variable speed limits, or on twisty roads with lots of corners. Unless you have adaptive cruise control (see below), you’ll probably find it easier to control your speed yourself or use a speed limiter, which is often fitted in cars with cruise control.

Using cruise control late at night can be ill-advised because having nothing to do behind the wheel when you're low on energy could lead to losses in concentration.

What is Adaptive Cruise Control?

Adaptive cruise control uses a radar, camera or lasers at the front of the car, which can detect vehicles ahead of you - typically up to 200 metres away.

This enables your car to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, by slowing itself down when needed. The first adaptive cruise control systems could only slow you down gradually, by reducing engine power, but modern systems take control of the brakes and can slow the car to a stop. That said, any emergency braking is still best undertaken manually.

The performance of these systems is variable depending on the manufacturer, and most are designed only to detect cars in front of you - they may not be able to spot people or other small objects in front of the car.

Much like with standard cruise control, adaptive cruise control is unlikely to be useful on twisty roads, either. It's not able to trace the road ahead, so you'll need to be aware of any braking required for a tight corner.

Some adaptive cruise control systems allow you to set the following distance and match the speed of the vehicle in front, but you can rest assured you won't be dragged over the speed limit as long as you set a maximum speed.

The most recent update to adaptive cruise control systems is their use in conjunction with traffic sign recognition. Your car will now identify the current speed limit and adjust your cruise control speed to match.

What is cruise control with traffic jam assist?

Traffic jam assist is an advanced form of adaptive cruise control, which operates in crawling traffic. When speeds fall, your car will reduce the gap to the car in front, and will stop right behind it if you’re unlucky enough to find traffic grinding to a halt. If it’s at a standstill for more than a couple of seconds, you’ll probably need to nudge the accelerator to set the car going again and reactivate the cruise control.

It’s often used in conjunction with self-steering systems that allow your car to follow the vehicle in front without the need to touch the steering wheel at low speeds.


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