MOTORWAY driving will become less stressful and safer thanks to work on radar-controlled cruise control carried out at Southampton University.
Scientists have helped develop one of the first such systems, which could be fitted to Jaguar cars possibly within a year.
John Turner, professor of automotive telematics, and his research team have worked to improve cruise control for about two years.
Work has been funded by companies Lucas, Jaguar, Ford, Rover, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Department of Trade and Industry.
Existing cruise control systems, which were developed in the United States for open highways, keep a car's speed constant without the accelerator being depressed. The system cuts off when the driver disengages it or hits the brakes or accelerator.
In Britain, there are fewer long straight roads. Motorways can get so congested that drivers must switch constantly between the brake and accelerator. In such conditions, cruise control systems are of little use.
Radar-control cruise control offers a solution by keeping a constant safe distance between a driver's car and the vehicle ahead.
The radar senses if the vehicle in front loses or gains speed and the brake or accelerator is applied as needed. If the vehicle ahead leaves the road, the cruise control automatically disengages and seeks another target.
Professor Turner said: "Cruise control is great on the open highway, but not so good on the M25, for instance. Linked to radar, however, slow-fast motorway driving becomes far less tiring."
The system could be programmed to carry out emergency stops and fast acceleration, but Professor Turner thinks that, when introduced, the braking and acceleration will be limited to about a third of total capacity. Drivers will still have to pay attention.
The smooth driving pattern produced by the radar-control could help traffic flow.
Professor Turner said: "I am not really sure why it helps traffic move more smoothly, but computer models produced by our transportation research group have shown that this is the case. You do not even have to have that many cars with this sort of cruise control for it to improve traffic flow."
The Southampton team is already working on a cruise control system that would be linked to a car's steering assembly. But there are potential problems with this level of automation.
Professor Turner said: "We could make cars that are totally automated. But the danger is that a driver would have too little to do and stop paying attention to what's going on.
"The other problem involves the legal responsibility for any accidents. Most accidents are caused by driver error, and I am sure that totally automated cars would kill fewer people.
"However, while we tolerate hundreds of deaths annually due to human error in traffic accidents, there would be an outcry if electronic vehicles killed just one person."
Eventually "smart" cruise controls will be fitted as standard to vehicles, Professor Turner predicts. Electronic systems, already very reliable, will approach infallibility. The day of the wholly-automated vehicle will come.