Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) is showing up in more new cars at showrooms, and it’s not just on the fancy cars. As the sensors become cheaper, ACC is making its way into cars in the middle of the price range.

ACC is dead simple, and once you start using it, you’ll turn it on every chance you get. The car will take over mundane driving chores—nothing tricky or fun—so you can focus on everything else around you.

Like Cruise Control, but Easier

So if you find yourself with a car that has this feature, how do you use it? Easy. First, look at the buttons on the steering wheel or one of the stalks coming off the steering wheel. ACC looks like regular cruise control. You turn it on and set your speed, and you can adjust your speed up and down. All the usual cruise control stuff.

The magic is in the front sensors. Depending on your car, the radar, camera, or other sensors will pick up on the car in front of you. With the ACC engaged, the system will keep you at a set distance behind that car, even if it slows down a bit or speeds up.

There’s a button that looks like a little car with some bars behind it. Those bars determine how closely you follow the car in front of you. At highway speed, you want lots of room (lots of bars lit up in the display). If it’s slower and traffic-y, you can tighten up your follow distance (maybe one or two bars lit up). Use your comfort and common sense as a guide here.

On a Highway to Hell … or Seattle

I had to drive from Portland to Seattle, a couple hundred miles, in a car with ACC. Most of the time, the speed limit is 75 mph, but sometimes it drops to 60 mph. It’s a drive I’ve made many times, so I don’t always pay the closest attention.

With ACC engaged, I set my speed at 75 mph. When I come up behind another car that’s doing 70 mph, ACC slows me down a safe distance away. I check my blind spot (with help from the blind spot detection system), put on my signal, and pass that car. ACC notices that the way ahead is clear now and resumes my speed of 75 mph.

When I get to the slower stretch around a city, I use the buttons to scrub my speed down to 62 mph (I’m not perfect). Same thing—ACC speeds me up and slows me down as traffic gets tighter. I choose to lessen the space between my front bumper and the next car’s rear bumper, then expand that space when the speed limit rises. And I use the buttons to increase speed, too.

Driving Less Cranky

Some systems only work above about 40 mph; some will bring you all the way to a stop and get moving again when the car in front of you moves. Your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website will have that information, or you could experiment a bit — safely.

Once I got used to ACC, I noticed I was less tired when I arrived in Seattle, and less cranky, which is a minor miracle. Don’t ignore this feature if you have it.—KHG

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