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What is adaptive cruise control – and is it worth it?

Lots of cars feature adaptive cruise control technology these days, but not everybody knows how to make best use of it. Here are some useful tips to get the most out of this impressive kit.

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What is adaptive cruise control?

Adaptive cruise control (ACC) is a driving assistance feature that can control a car's accelerator and brakes to reduce your workload behind the wheel.

It's essentially an evolution of traditional cruise control that's able to not only hold your speed, but also follow the traffic ahead and maintain a safe distance.

In some cars, the adaptive cruise control system only works at motorway speeds.

In others, it can safely bring the car to a stop of the traffic ahead slows down, and then get the car moving again when the road clears.

How does adaptive cruise control work, and how is it different to standard cruise control?

Standard cruise control has been a feature on cars for quite some time now, and the way that the most basic version works is simple.

You’ll reach your desired speed, turn on cruise control, and your car will progress at this speed until you turn off the control or start to brake.  

Adaptive cruise control is a more intelligent system: 

  1. You’ll first need to reach the desired speed by accelerating as normal.   

  2. Once you’re happy with your speed, you can press the ‘set’ button.   

  3. You’ll now be able to set the distance you’d like to keep between your vehicle and the one in front. If the car ahead starts to slow, your vehicle will either notify you to start braking, or slow down itself to maintain the distance you set.   

  4. If you do start to brake, this will deactivate the ACC system.   

The principle behind ACC is similar to standard cruise control. Thanks to the adoption of a camera (or cameras) to the front of a car, it can essentially 'see' the road ahead.

This makes the car aware of the distance to the car in front, meaning not only can the adaptive cruise control hold your speed, it can also hold the space – even if the car ahead slows.

If the car ahead speeds up, the ACC will only accelerate you back to the speed you have set – it won't go beyond that. 

The latest ACC systems can also work in low-speed traffic, creeping the car forwards, and stopping and starting with the congestion ahead.

If you do press the brakes (or, in the case of manual cars, press the clutch pedal), then the adaptive cruise control switches off, putting you back in full control. 

A close up shot of the control buttons on a car steering wheel.

What are the benefits of adaptive cruise control?

The main benefit is that ACC can make driving both on long journeys and in congested cities that little bit more relaxing, not to mention easier on the right leg as you can take your foot off the accelerator entirely.

The next benefit is increased safety. In normal driving circumstances, it will automatically prevent you from getting too close to the car in front and may even pick up developing dangers before you have the chance to see them yourself.

Cars with ACC are also often fitted with other features like lane assistance and steering assistance technology, as well as blind-spot monitoring, which all combine to increase safety.

How safe is adaptive cruise control?

Many drivers will understandably be reluctant to hand over this kind of decision-making to the car they’re driving.

After all, accidents tend to occur through unexpected actions and poor decisions, and there may be a fear that ACC will not be able to react quickly enough to the circumstances ahead.

Systems are now so sophisticated, however, that the reaction time can often be faster than a human driver’s. The technology itself is also virtually 100% reliable.

That said, there are certain road and weather conditions that can affect the operation of the detection system.

These include when there's heavy rain or fog or when the sensors are covered in mud or snow. You should always be ready to take back full control.

ACC systems can, in some cars, ask for you to take control with short notice when roadworks, faded white lines or even heavy rainfall impede the technology's 'vision'.

Having an ACC system doesn't mean you can skip out on being cautious as you drive.

You'll still need to focus on the road and expect the unexpected, even with this fab safety tech.

Will adaptive cruise control save me money?

Interestingly, your insurance premiums might be slightly lower if your car has adaptive cruise control fitted, as the camera equipment it comes with is considered to be a safety-improving tech.

Maintaining a steady speed could also be good for your pocket, as this will increase your fuel economy.

You could find yourself needing to fill up less often, saving you money as the cost of fuel rises.

An artsy photograph taken from a top-down view of cars driving on a blue background, with coloured spots.

Is adaptive cruise control worth it?

If you’re the sort of driver who does big miles on the motorway or finds themselves regularly stuck in traffic, adaptive cruise control can be a massive help.

Even if you don't regularly drive long distances, you'll likely appreciate the technology on that occasional big road trip.

If you can find a car within your budget that has adaptive cruise control, happy days.

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