Business Insider / Jillian D’Onfro
Cruise control has been around for decades. Even the cheapest cars and trucks are equipped with it.
At any given time, most of the traffic on a freeway could be running on cruise control.
At Business Insider, the transportation team checks out many cars that go beyond the typical cruise-control features and hint at a brave new world of vehicles that can largely drive themselves.
This is the current state for cruise control — the best-known technology of which is usually called “adaptive” cruise control, meaning that the car will slow down and speed up and maintain defined following distances based on what the driver sets.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which the federal government is investigating because of its involvement in a fatal accident in Florida in May, goes well beyond adaptive cruise control and allows for a degree of hands-free driving and collision avoidance.
It’s the most advanced semi-self-driving technology on the market that’s being used by customers, although carmakers such as General Motors have their own versions under testing.
We’ve also tried Autopilot, and it is impressive — but of course, as the Florida accident shows, not perfect.
As far the advanced cruise-control technologies now widely available in the market go, I have to admit that, while they have worked quite well in our experience, I can’t get completely comfortable with them.
These systems usually combine adaptive technology — powered by sensors, sonars, and cameras — with lane-departure warnings and collision-avoidance aspects, such as emergency braking if the car detects an imminent collision.
In practice, unless there’s very little traffic on an open highway, I tend to be on and off with advanced cruise control. I set it and let it do its thing, but then when traffic congestion appears, the roadway gets bumpy or uneven, or there’s construction or repairs to the road going on, I tap the brakes, turning it off, and I go right back to driving the car.
This is especially the case for cars with manual transmissions.
The bottom line is that although I’ve seen the technology perform as it should, I can’t accept that it can handle anything beyond worry free, steady-state driving.
We’re not talking about hands-off-the-wheel stuff here, either. These are the absolute best and most sophisticated cruise-control technologies available, and with pretty much all of my test cars, I treat them exactly as I’ve treated cruise control for almost 35 years of driving.
Matthew DeBord/Business Insider
What I think this means is twofold.
First, I’m old school. There’s a level at which I like to drive the car and stay continuously engaged.
But second, the current tech is incremental. I would describe it as cruise-control plus. It points more dramatically than I think most folks understand at a driverless-car future. But we have a long way to go before the human driver can be taken out of the picture.
Tesla has a good safety record so far with Autopilot, which was introduced last year: only one known fatality.
And if the technologies — Autopilot and otherwise — progress, as they certainly will, then I’m convinced that full autonomy will arrive in the next few decades, on highways first and later in cities and towns.
But for now, even with the best advanced cruise control the auto industry has to offer, I’m not prepared to relax the human skills I’ve developed from a lifetime of driving.
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