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
Apr 23, 2021

Cruise control is a clever system that regulates your engine to keep your car driving at a set speed. You'll hit a switch to activate it, and when you do it takes control of the accelerator and adjusts the power input automatically to maintain the speed you select. It will even 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. You'll still need to use the brake pedal and steering though, cars aren't clever enough to do all that just yet.

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 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 roadworks with a lower speed limit, you can press the minus button 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 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.

It’s not well-suited to twisting roads, where you have to slow for corners, or in traffic with variable speeds. 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, as having nothing to do behind the wheel when you're low on energy could lead to losses in concentration or worse.

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 gradually, by reducing engine power, but modern systems take control of the brakes and can slow the car to a stop. Emergency braking is still best undertaken manually.

The ability of these systems vary and they may not spot people or small objects in front of the car. They can’t identify tight corners which you’ve got to slow down for, either, so you’ve still got to watch the road as carefully as when you’re not using it.

Cars with adaptive cruise control allow you to set the distance to the vehicle in front, usually ranging from slightly too close for comfort to what feels like the length of a football pitch.

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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