How Cruise Control Systems Work

Cruise control is an invaluable feature on Ameri­can ­cars. Without cruise control, long road trips would be more tiring, for the driver at least, and those of us suffering from lead-foot syndrome would probably get a lot more speeding tickets.

­Cruise control is far more common on American cars than European cars, because the roads in America are generally bigger and straighter, and destinations are farther apart. With traffic continually increasing, basic cruise control is becoming less useful, but instead of becoming obsolete, cruise control systems are adapting to this new reality -- soon, cars will be equipped with adaptive cruise control, which will allow your ­car to follow the car in front of it while continually adjusting speed to maintain a safe distance.

In this article, we'll learn how a conventional cruise control system works, and then we'll take a look at adaptive cruise control systems that are under development.

What Cruise Control Does

The cruise control system actually has a lot of functions other than controlling the speed of your car. For instance, the cruise control pictured below can accelerate or decelerate the car by 1 mph with the tap of a button. Hit the button five times to go 5 mph faster. There are also several important safety features -- the cruise control will disengage as soon as you hit the brake pedal, and it won't engage at speeds less than 25 mph (40 kph).

The system pictured below has five buttons: On, Off, Set/Accel, Resume and Coast. It also has a sixth control -- the brake pedal, and if your car has a manual transmission the clutch pedal is also hooked up to the cruise control.

  • The on and off buttons don't actually do much. Hitting the on button does not do anything except tell the car that you might be hitting another button soon. The off button turns the cruise control off even if it is engaged. Some cruise controls don't have these buttons; instead, they turn off when the driver hits the brakes, and turn on when the driver hits the set button.
  • The set/accel button tells the car to maintain the speed you are currently driving. If you hit the set button at 45 mph, the car will maintain your speed at 45 mph. Holding down the set/accel button will make the car accelerate; and on this car, tapping it once will make the car go 1 mph faster.
  • If you recently disengaged the cruise control by hitting the brake pedal, hitting the resume button will command the car to accelerate back to the most recent speed setting.
  • Holding down the coast button will cause the car to decelerate, just as if you took your foot completely off the gas. On this car, tapping the coast button once will cause the car to slow down by 1 mph.
  • The brake pedal and clutch pedal each have a switch that disengages the cruise control as soon as the pedal is pressed, so you can shut off the cruise control with a light tap on the brake or clutch.

Cruise Control Acceleration and Deceleration

One of the cables is connected to the gas pedal, the other to the vacuum actuator.
One of the cables is connected to the gas pedal, the other to the vacuum actuator.

The cruise control system controls the speed of your car the same way you do -- by adjusting the throttle position. But cruise control actuates the throttle valve by a cable connected to an actuator, instead of by pressing a pedal. The throttle valve controls the power and speed of the engine by limiting how much air the engine takes in (see How Fuel Injection Systems Work for more details).

In the picture above, you can see two cables connected to a pivot that moves the throttle valve. One cable comes from the accelerator pedal, and one from the actuator. When the cruise control is engaged, the actuator moves the cable connected to the pivot, which adjusts the throttle; but it also pulls on the cable that is connected to the gas pedal -- this is why your pedal moves up and down when the cruise control is engaged.

The electronically-controlled vacuum actuator that controls the throttle

Many cars use actuators powered by engine vacuum to open and close the throttle. These systems use a small, electronically-controlled valve to regulate the vacuum in a diaphragm. This works in a similar way to the brake booster, which provides power to your brake system.

Controlling the Cruise Control

The brain of a cruise control system is a small computer that is normally found under the hood or behind the dashboard. It connects to the throttle control seen in the previous section, as well as several sensors. The diagram below shows the inputs and outputs of a typical cruise control system.

A good cruise control system accelerates aggressively to the desired speed without overshooting, and then maintains that speed with little deviation no matter how much weight is in the car, or how steep the hill you drive up. Controlling the speed of a car is a classic application of control system theory. The cruise control system controls the speed of the car by adjusting the throttle position, so it needs sensors to tell it the speed and throttle position. It also needs to monitor the controls so it can tell what the desired speed is and when to disengage.

The most important input is the speed signal; the cruise control system does a lot with this signal. First, let's start with one of the most basic control systems you could have -- a proportional control.

In a proportional control system, the cruise control adjusts the throttle proportional to the error, the error being the difference between the desired speed and the actual speed. So, if the cruise control is set at 60 mph and the car is going 50 mph, the throttle position will be open quite far. When the car is going 55 mph, the throttle position opening will be only half of what it was before. The result is that the closer the car gets to the desired speed, the slower it accelerates. Also, if you were on a steep enough hill, the car might not accelerate at all.

Most cruise control systems use a control scheme called proportional-integral-derivative control (a.k.a. PID control). Don't worry, you don't need to know any calculus to make it through this explanation -- just remember that:

  • The integral of speed is distance.
  • The derivative of speed is acceleration.

A PID control system uses these three factors -- proportional, integral and derivative, calculating each individually and adding them to get the throttle position.

We've already discussed the proportional factor. The integral factor is based on the time integral of the vehicle speed error. Translation: the difference between the distance your car actually traveled and the distance it would have traveled if it were going at the desired speed, calculated over a set period of time. This factor helps the car deal with hills, and also helps it settle into the correct speed and stay there. Let's say your car starts to go up a hill and slows down. The proportional control increases the throttle a little, but you may still slow down. After a little while, the integral control will start to increase the throttle, opening it more and more, because the longer the car maintains a speed slower than the desired speed, the larger the distance error gets.

Now let's add in the final factor, the derivative. Remember that the derivative of speed is acceleration. This factor helps the cruise control respond quickly to changes, such as hills. If the car starts to slow down, the cruise control can see this acceleration (slowing down and speeding up are both acceleration) before the speed can actually change much, and respond by increasing the throttle position.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Two companies are developing a more advanced cruise control that can automatically adjust a car's speed to maintain a safe following distance. This new technology, called adaptive cruise control, uses forward-looking radar, installed behind the grill of a vehicle, to detect the speed and distance of the vehicle ahead of it.

Adaptive cruise control is similar to conventional cruise control in that it maintains the vehicle's pre-set speed. However, unlike conventional cruise control, this new system can automatically adjust speed in order to maintain a proper distance between vehicles in the same lane. This is achieved through a radar headway sensor, digital signal processor and longitudinal controller. If the lead vehicle slows down, or if another object is detected, the system sends a signal to the engine or braking system to decelerate. Then, when the road is clear, the system will re-accelerate the vehicle back to the set speed.

The 77-GHz Autocruise radar system made by TRW has a forward-looking range of up to 492 feet (150 meters), and operates at vehicle speeds ranging from 18.6 miles per hour (30 kph) to 111 mph (180 kph). Delphi's 76-GHz system can also detect objects as far away as 492 feet, and operates at speeds as low as 20 mph (32 kph).

Adaptive cruise control is just a preview of the technology being developed by both companies. These systems are being enhanced to include collision warning capabilities that will warn drivers through visual and/or audio signals that a collision is imminent and that braking or evasive steering is needed.

For more information on cruise control, check out the links on the next page.

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