Bluetooth in Your Car: Still Indispensable, Still Imperfect

Connecting Is Easier, but New Features Bring New Challenges


  • Chevrolet Spark and Pandora

    Chevrolet Spark and Pandora

    Bluetooth audio has caught on with car buyers thanks to the popularity of the streaming music service Pandora and its integration into cars. | August 27, 2013

3 Photos

Bluetooth began as a feature found only in high-end cars, introduced as a way to make hands-free phone calls behind the wheel. The auto industry standard for wirelessly connecting portable devices has since become a prevalent feature in most new vehicles. As smartphones become the preferred method for delivering Internet-based content to car infotainment systems, Bluetooth provides the nearly indispensable link.

But vehicle owners still grind their teeth as they try to resolve incompatibility issues between the Bluetooth technology on their devices and the systems in their cars. These glitches are mainly due to the differences in the speed at which the consumer electronics and automotive industries move. "Automotive works at one cycle and mobile devices work at another cycle," says Doron Elliott, Ford's Bluetooth global lead.

A phone that you buy today was likely developed within the last year or so, while a new car and its electronics could have been designed four years ago. The lifespans of the two products are also very dissimilar. "Consumers purchase a new vehicle on average every five years but replace their phones every two," Elliott says.

In addition, the software and firmware on phones can be continually updated, while a car's infotainment software cannot, for the most part. "Device software and firmware updates take place multiple times per year," Elliott says.

This all leads to disparities between Bluetooth technology in a phone and in a car, and to headaches for car owners.

The good news is that since Bluetooth is becoming more common, automakers are making it easier for consumers to use it. They also are adding more Bluetooth features to their systems. The bad news is that as they do so, consumers are confronted with new ways for things to go wrong.

For example, many automakers now offer Bluetooth audio, which allows users to wirelessly stream music from a compatible phone to a car's stereo system. But some vehicles require two pairings: one for hands-free calling and one for music. That's not always clear to car owners, particularly if they haven't read the car's infotainment manual. These days, those books often run to more than 100 pages.

"Consumers are more aware of Bluetooth and certain things have become easier," Elliott says. "But it's added to some of the complexity for consumers to understand all the new features in their car, and it's still a learning curve for them."

"All this points to the current reality, which is that Bluetooth connections are still a problem," says Roger Lanctot, associate director of Global Automotive Practice at the market research firm Strategy Analytics.

Here are some of the ways in which Bluetooth is now easier to use, including some of its new applications and a few ideas on how to avoid its more annoying entanglements before you buy a car.

The Holy Grail of Easier Pairing
Before you can use Bluetooth, you have to be able to pair your smartphone or other portable device with your vehicle. This is still one of the biggest hurdles for car owners to overcome.

In most vehicles, the pairing process involves initiating a search for a device via the head unit (the brains and command center for a car's audio system) and then on the phone.

Once the car and the phone "find" each other, the user enters a PIN code to connect them. Every carmaker's approach is a little different, however, and the pairing process is not always as seamless as it should be. One bright spot is that once you've paired your phone, you don't generally have to do it again until you buy a new one.

Nevertheless, automakers want to make the initial process easier, and so have started to implement what's known as Secure Simple Pairing (SSP), which requires less user interaction. With SSP, a one-time six-digit key displays at the time of pairing on both the device and the car, replacing the PIN code. Once the user confirms that the keys match, the two devices are paired.

Although Bluetooth SSP was introduced in 2007, it's just now starting to appear in new cars. Mark Boyadjis, an automotive electronics analyst with IHS Global, named more than a dozen car models' infotainment systems that now have the feature. SSP generally is more prevalent on infotainment systems and less often available on base model cars with more elementary Bluetooth capabilities, he says.

While SSP can help when it's available, Lanctot adds that it's not well understood by dealers or buyers.

Several years ago, Bluetooth audio had the same problem. Although Bluetooth audio has been around even longer than SSP, it's only recently caught on with car buyers, thanks to the popularity of the streaming music service Pandora and its integration into cars.

New Bluetooth Features
In addition to making pairing easier, automakers are adding Bluetooth features to their cars:

  • The Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) allows drivers to use the car's controls to skip tracks, pause and resume playback of music streamed from smartphones. The latest AVRCP implementation can also show artist name, album and song title and album art on a car's in-dash display.
  • Message Access Profile (MAP) allows smartphone text messages to be displayed or read aloud by a car's infotainment system. MAP can also send automatic responses or a "do not disturb" message in response to an incoming text.
  • The Serial Port Profile (SPP) Bluetooth spec allows a car to connect to the Internet via a smartphone to download traffic information, access online search engines to find navigation destinations and connect to social media networks. Ford's Sync AppLink and Toyota's Entune system both use SPP to connect with supported apps, for example.

"Smartphone accommodation is at a critical turning point in the industry," says Lanctot. "Honda has pointed the way with ads touting Pandora integration via smartphone last year, and BMW has been using smartphone integration as a car-selling tool in its advertising."

Bluetooth Alternatives
Most smartphones use Bluetooth to link the car and the Internet to deliver cloud-based content. One notable exception is Apple's iPhone, which requires a wired connection in order to work with such automaker application suites as HondaLink and Ford Sync AppLink.

Apple was slow to include Bluetooth audio within its tightly controlled "walled garden" product ecosystem and only recently included Bluetooth MAP.

The company is expected to take the same tethered approach with the recently announced iOS for the Car feature that will be part of its upcoming iOS 7 software release. iOS for the Car will allow drivers to access navigation maps, receive text messages and more, but only if they own an Apple device and a vehicle with the feature.

While Apple prefers to bypass Bluetooth and its problems whenever possible, Bluetooth alternatives are starting to appear for drivers who use phones that run on Android or other operating systems. Boyadjis notes that the latest Bluetooth 3.0 +HS specification allows for implementation of Bluetooth and WiFi on a single chip. "This will enable Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity through the same system," he says.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS and XTS with the CUE system were the first vehicles to launch with Bluetooth 3.0 +HS. Boyadjis predicts that the spec will be available on more than 40 million devices by 2018. Because of this, and because more cars are gaining WiFi capability, Elliot says that some features that are normally delivered via Bluetooth, such as streaming music and other content from smartphones, could also soon operate over WiFi within the car.

Another emerging technology that may help iron out some of the kinks in Bluetooth is Near Field Communication (NFC), which allows for simple proximity pairing, but has been proposed for everything from easily activating a GPS navigation app on a smartphone to using the device as a key to open a car's doors.

In the case of Bluetooth pairing, "you put your phone on an NFC pad in the car and it will pair it for you: no user interaction needed," Boyadjis says. He adds that NFC is quickly making its way into many mobile devices.

But while NFC could allow effortless device pairing, it may not be a silver bullet for Bluetooth issues, says Elliott.

"I think there needs to be a bit of caution in that as we seek to overcome one interoperability challenge, we don't create another" he says. "Devices that support NFC don't all support it for the use of Bluetooth pairing. In concept it's a great idea, but I think we have to be cautious about it."

Try Before You Buy
To avoid incompatibility issues, it's a good idea to be sure your smartphone or other mobile device will work with a car you're thinking of buying. These Edmunds articles, "Bluetooth Basics," "How to Test-Drive a Bluetooth System" and "Bluetooth Tech Checklist for Car Shoppers" can help you better understand the technology while you're shopping for a vehicle. Be sure to pair your device as part of your test-drive and to check out all the features a vehicle has (or doesn't have) before you decide to buy.

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