Adaptive cruise control goes mainstream

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Dave Kuipers enjoys testing the limits of his 2015 Dodge Challenger R/T: "So far, the best (zero to 60 mph) I've been able to do is 5.6 seconds."

But when the 57-year-old Grand Rapids Township resident doesn't feel like going zero to 60 in less than six seconds, he is among a growing number of drivers with the option of cruising without touching the brake or gas pedals for miles at a time.

Kuipers' Challenger has adaptive cruise control, an emerging technology that automatically adjusts a vehicle's speed to maintain a safe distance from cars and trucks ahead.

The systems use radar to detect slower vehicles. The car then adjusts its speed to maintain a safe distance from a car or truck ahead, slowing or accelerating as necessary. Some systems can bring the car to a complete stop if needed and then restart in a traffic jam. No need to tap the brake to disengage the cruise control and then reset it.

Automakers have been working on adaptive cruise control systems for decades, mainly in high-end luxury cars. The systems are now becoming affordable for mainstream buyers as they become more widespread. The technology is standard or optional on more than 60 vehicles from the top five automakers in the U.S., including more than 30 from General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

The most advanced systems can stop and start in traffic jams without touching a pedal. The most basic work only above a certain speed and cannot be used in traffic jams. Drivers typically can adjust the gap between cars according to their own comfort levels.

"There's certainly been some significant advances in how useful and how effective they are in doing their job," said IHS Automotive senior technology analyst Jeremy Carlson. "It's been more and more useful in terms of the functionality."

IHS Automotive forecasts 7.2 percent of vehicles produced globally by 2020 will feature adaptive cruise control, up from 2.2 percent in 2014.

"What's happening in the marketplace is that even pickups and extended-cab-type utility vehicles, we're having (automakers) ask for that feature on future vehicles," said Dean McConnell, director of Occupant Safety & Driver Assistance Systems for auto supplier Continental Automotive Systems North America.

Toyota leading way

In September, Toyota Division general manager Bill Fay announced ambitions to become the world's first full-line manufacturer to offer advanced safety systems across its entire lineup. Many would likely offer adaptive cruise control.

Fay said the company plans to begin releasing the technology packages this year, and hopes to have them widely available across its product line by 2017.

The majority of automakers package adaptive cruise control and active safety systems together, giving customers convenience as well as increased safety. Active safety systems include the capability of stopping cars from straying from their lanes, or braking when hazards are detected.

"The successful strategies we've seen with our customers is when they can make a safety improvement and also offer a comfort feature that the consumer can relate to and use every day," McConnell said. "That's why adaptive cruise control, I think, will continue to grow at a significant rate."

By 2020, IHS Automotive predicts active safety systems will be in about 20 percent of vehicles produced globally, up from about 6 percent in 2014.

Systems can be costly

However, the systems can add thousands of dollars to the price of a vehicle when packaged together. For example, full-range adaptive cruise control on GM's 2015 Chevrolet Impala is a $1,195 option but has to be equipped with other packages that can add another $2,500 or so to the car's price.

GM's "Super Cruise" system is set to debut in late-2016 on the 2017 Cadillac CT6. The new system utilizes adaptive cruise control, braking and steering radar, camera and sensor systems to keep a vehicle in its lane — a step toward autonomous driving. The system, using GPS data, will only work on highways.

"With Super Cruise, when there's a congestion alert on roads like California's Santa Monica Freeway, you can let the car take over and drive hands-free and feet-free through the worst stop-and-go-traffic around," GM CEO Mary Barra explained in September at the Congress of the Intelligent Transport Society.

For the next decade or so, systems like Super Cruise and adaptive cruise control are expected to always keep the driver in the loop, in case of unexpected occurrences or changes such as a radar not sensing another vehicle due to hilly roads or sharp turns, possibly causing the vehicle to unexpectedly speed up.

"It's just a matter of making sure you work around what those limitations are, and automakers are pretty cautious about that anyway," said IHS Automotive's Carlson. "They're trying to make sure their customer, their drivers aren't relying on it too heavily, and therefore not coming into one of those pitfalls."

Industry analysts don't expect adaptive cruise control to completely take over for traditional cruise control anytime soon, but drivers like Kuipers seem to like the choice of having both traditional and adaptive cruise control systems in their new vehicles.

"I like the convenience factor," he said. "I've always used cruise control even in traffic just to make sure I don't speed, and that there's a limit."

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