You're going a smooth 55 miles per hour across the George Washington Bridge when you realize you're gaining on the car in front of you.
Your car automatically begins to decelerate as you glance into the sideview mirror, notice the left lane is open, and move over. With clear air and a clear lane ahead, your car automatically throttles and you effortlessly pass the slower traveler. That's when you realize this isn't your dad's cruise control.
It's Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC; also called autonomous cruise control), a technology invented by William Chundrlik and Pamela Labuhn in 1990 and first patented in 1991 by General Motors. The reason you may not have heard of it: it has been reserved only for high-end luxury cars. Lucky for you, it's starting to become available in more affordable cars, according to WIRED magazine.
Adaptiver Cruise Control
The radar camera mounted in the grill below the bumper WikiMedia Commons/Christopher Ziemnowicz
Here's how it works:
ACC involves a microwave radar unit incorporated into a car's front grill.
The radar scans for objects and vehicles up to 500 feet away and calculates the object's velocity, adjusting your car's speed accordingly.
By setting a preferred distance between your car and the car ahead, your car maintains the preferred trailing distance by adapting your cars speed to the car ahead
Allowing you to set a top speed, your car adapts to the driving environment so that once you find an open lane, it automatically accelerates back to the desired maximum speed, reports JD Power and Associates.
Not only does this technology make driving easier, it might make it less stressful too. Studies focusing on traffic and highway driving conditions, reported in the New York Times, produced some startling results:
When a highway is at "peak capacity," only 4.5% of the road's surface area is covered—ACC could help utilize more of the road's surface area
Simulations showed that when a quarter of cars had ACC, travel times fell by 37.5%
Simulations also showed that when a quarter of cars had ACC, traffic delays were reduced by 20%
This means that if at least 25% of vehicles on the road had ACC, traffic jams and delays could be reduced and even avoided altogether. That figure seems like it could soon be a reality: The New York Times also estimated that by 2017, 6.9 million new cars will be released with ACC.
Aside from the cruise control measures and traffic reducing effects, collision warning alerts are also part of the system. Without getting too complicated, the radar and built-in computer measure the distance to the car ahead, the speed traveled, and the braking capacity of the car. When it becomes apparent that the driver is about to crash their car into the back of an unexpecting driver's back bumper, the ACC technology alerts you, hits the brakes, and tightens up your seatbelt.
William Chundrlik, one of the inventors of the radar technology behind ACC, explained how the radar could help prevent accidents, to a degree.
"The game changers are these sensors, whether they are radar, cameras, ultrasonics," said Chundrlik. "The game changer in my mind is integrating sensing technology that allows you to monitor the environment. They are providing you the ability to add more safety and convenience into vehicles. A lot of accidents occur at lower speeds with inattentive drivers and you can use this technology to—and I use this word carefully—mitigate collisions."
Chundrlik even postulated that someday in the future, cars could become completely autonomous, almost like an auto-pilot setting in commercial airplanes.
"You could see the path towards autonomous driving and we're heading down it", he said. "I truly believe that will happen and we're on our way to doing it."
So while ACC currently makes traffic better and collisions rarer, the radar behind ACC may someday make it so we can, as Chundrlik put it, "read the Wall Street Journal while going to work."