Today’s cars come pack with numerous features that make them much easier to drive than the first “horse-less carriages.” From power steering to windshield wipers to high beam headlights, these features not only make cars easier to drive but much more practical. Another such feature, one that people sometimes forget about, is cruise control. Cruise control is an extremely useful system in modern vehicles which can make long trips much less tiring on the driver, as well as saving on gas if it is used correctly.

Invention and use

The idea of a system which maintains a steady speed for a vehicle, even when going up or down slopes, is not a new one, nor did it originate with cars. Steam locomotive engines have a part called a “governor” which serves to change the throttle automatically to maintain speed in changing conditions. Governors actually date back to sometime in the 17th century, but steam engines saw its first common use.

Modern cruise control is much different from the idea that started it, however. This system was invented in 1948 by Ralph Teetor, a prolific inventor who was blinded at a young age and thus could not drive himself around. Teetor was inspired to create the modern cruise control system after a particularly annoying ride given to him by his lawyer, during which the driver sped up and slowed down erratically while talking. Several other inventors filed patents for their own speed regulation systems within a few years of Teetor, but Teetor’s was the one system that grew popular enough to become the father of the cruise control we use today.

Teetor’s cruise control system worked by gauging a vehicle’s speed by gauging how quickly the driveshaft was rotating and then using a bi-directional, screw-drive electric motor to change throttle positions and regulate speed. The 1958 Imperial was the first car to use Teetor’s cruise control system. Since it’s inception by Teetor, cruise control has seen necessary changes as engine technology has developed. Today, the system in modern cars monitors speed by electronic pulses made by the engine, a wheel speed sensor, or the same way that Teetor did it, by driveshaft rotations. The throttle is then regulated by a solenoid, fully-electric systems, or a vacuum-type servomechanism.

On most cars made these days, using cruise control is as simple as pressing a button. Many vehicles have a simple on/off switch for the system located on their steering column or the steering wheel itself (if you have trouble finding it in your vehicle, check the owner’s manual or ask online). Most cars also have a “set,” “resume,” and possibly a “cancel” button as well. All a driver needs to do is turn the system on, drive at the speed they wish the cruise control to maintain and press the set button to lock in that speed, then cruise control will maintain that speed if the driver takes their foot off the gas pedal (while still allowing them to accelerate or brake when needed.) Turn the system off when you don’t need it anymore, or “cancel” and “resume” it, if your vehicle has those options.

Saving gas with cruise control

Cruise control didn’t see a lot of popularity until the 1973 oil crisis in the United States. This event saw gas prices rise dramatically, and drivers began searching for any way to use less gas when they drove. Cruise control claimed to be able to increase fuel efficiency by maintaining an even speed, thus eliminating the increase in gasoline used every time the driver pressed on the gas pedal.

Cruise control’s claim to save gas has been hotly debated ever since it was made, however. While the idea of maintaining speed sounds more efficient in theory, drivers have wondered how well it works in practice, on the road, and doubted it can actually save gas compared to driving normally. Because cruise control tries to always maintain a steady speed, it can actually use a lot more gas going up a slope than a driver, who will allow the car to go a bit slower while it climbs, thus using less gas. Therefore, in hilly areas at least, cruise control actually seems to be less fuel-efficient! The biggest waste of gas, however, is accidentally going much too fast, which is something cruise control eliminates. Because of these factors, drivers may find cruise control uses more or less gas than driving normally, depending upon the area they often drive in and how careful the driver is.

There are other uses for cruise control beyond trying to save gas. Some drivers use cruise control because they know that they have trouble maintaining a steady speed for one reason or another. These drivers often use the system to keep from unconsciously speeding up to the point where they’d get a ticket or potentially cause an accident. Another good reason to use cruise control is when you are making a long car trip somewhere. Using the system when on a long stretch of road not requiring you to speed up or slow down for long periods of time allows you to move your foot and leg around a bit, reducing the chances of cramping, as well as driver fatigue.

Aftermarket and on other vehicles

While most vehicles made in recent years come with cruise control as a standard option, some do not, and many older cars lack the system as well. If you buy such a vehicle, then decide you want the system, many places sell aftermarket kits which a knowledgeable driver can install themselves, although most will want to take their vehicle into a qualified mechanic and have them install the system. Motorcycles and similar vehicles can also get a cruise control system, although the system less frequently comes standard on these vehicles.