Drivers Still Suffer From Bluetooth Blues

Why Isn't Hands-Free in Cars Hassle-Free?

Automakers rely on Bluetooth so drivers can use their mobile phones in their cars. But drivers can't always rely on Bluetooth, and this technology for connecting portable devices to vehicles can be a source of frustration rather than a panacea.

Incompatibility between Bluetooth systems and mobile phones is common, causing not just pairing problems but also lack of access to all the electronic features now available on both the phone and the car. And it all starts with a single problem facing automakers: They can't keep cars current with consumer electronics technology.

This is not a new problem with a new technology. Edmunds wrote about the same issues two years ago in "Bluetooth Blues." And while Bluetooth is now nearly ubiquitous in new vehicles across all segments, hands-free is still far from hassle-free.

"Bluetooth is among the top five features that people are looking for," says Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner, a market research firm. "So this is a big issue for the car industry."

Behind the Tech Curve

Bluetooth could be the poster child for technology from the automakers that has persistently been behind the tech curve. Bluetooth "profiles" and other technology are locked down in the hardware of new cars during the long engineering phase that precedes production. And since people change phones about every 18 months on average, it's not surprising that phones and cars can't get along. "You have two industries that are not moving at the same speed," explains Christian Coly, vice president of sales and marketing for Parrot North America, which supplies Bluetooth technology to OEMs as well as to the aftermarket.

New Bluetooth profiles are added to the latest phones, and the profiles can vary among phones and even among various carriers. "You've got a lot of different Bluetooth profiles, and then you've got different versions of those profiles," says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst with iSuppli, a market research firm. "That's the biggest issue."

Other variables make the situation even more complicated. Phones constantly receive software and firmware updates. And a phone on one wireless carrier could work fine in one particular car, while the same phone on a different wireless carrier might not. "There are just so many variables, even amongst the same phone operating system," says Henry Craner, a product planning manager at Hyundai. "We try to test them all but still you run into variances between individual phones. For example, I have a Droid and my wife has a Droid," he added. "Mine works great, but hers doesn't."

Boyadjis recently had a similar experience in a 2011 Volvo S60. "I paired my Droid Incredible with the car, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to transfer my address book," he says. "I read the manual over and over, and it just didn't work. And Volvo says on its Web site that it's fully compatible. Then another colleague of mine tried with an iPhone and it worked perfectly."

Come Together

Average consumers don't know or care whether their car or phone has the latest Bluetooth profiles or updates; they just want their hands-free systems to work. When they don't, consumers can get frustrated or downright enraged. Automakers, device makers and wireless carriers all feel the heat.

These industries — as well as auto electronics suppliers — have started to work together in earnest to help alleviate some of the compatibility problems. "The wireless industry now sees the interface of the phone to the car not just as an afterthought but a core function," notes Tim Johnson, emerging solutions manager for Sprint.

"At Sprint, we've definitely gone from being reactive to being proactive in our interactions with all the right parties," Johnson says. This includes weekly phone calls regarding certification and pre-launch testing of devices. "Ultimately, we don't want an end customer in a bad situation," and then pointing the finger of blame at either the car company or at Sprint, he adds.

"Wireless carriers and handset providers have really started to put significant effort into integrating the technologies," says Jim Buczkowski, director of electronics systems research for Ford, which led the in-car integration revolution with its Microsoft-engineered Sync system.

"Since our strategy with Sync is focused on customers being able to bring in their device, we have to work through all the levels of implementation of Bluetooth, starting with the carriers and handset providers to do testing and then help communicate the message on what phones work with what features," he says.

The process is "kind of like hitting a moving target," Buczkowski says. "But in general, we've been a lot more successful lately in working with the carriers to do testing up front."

Testing, Testing, Testing

Buczkowski says that when Ford undertakes this certification process, it provides device makers with test benches and sometimes even cars. "It's the implementation of software by a device maker or wireless carrier that's really critical," he says. "Because of an upgrade or new features, suddenly something that was working perfectly in the earlier version doesn't. Sometimes it's an over-the-air update. Sometimes people sync their phone and get offered the latest and greatest operating system and suddenly their phone's not working the way it used to."

It's as frustrating for the automakers and others industries involved as it is for consumers, he says. "We're all feeling the effects of it," he explains. "Initially, the carriers and the handset providers were a little bit shielded from it. But they're seeing it a lot more now with customers calling and asking for help. So they're much more engaged now and much more willing to do testing early on so that they can certify phones up front. So testing, testing, testing is what's necessary."

We've found that nearly every automaker that offers Bluetooth tests phones on an ongoing basis and tries to ensure compatibility, and many have dedicated Web sites that show which phones are supposed to work with their Bluetooth systems.

"It's a daunting task," says Hyundai's Craner. "And I hesitate to say we test every phone, because I'm sure something might slip by. But we test hundreds of phones to keep on top of it, and we put the phones that are tested on our Web site. Consumers can check that for any known issues with the phone they're considering."

Parrot's Coly says that his company tests more than 450 phones a year. "We have a department that works especially on compatibility," he says. "And the carriers are definitely good partners. We collect the data from all of them. That's how we can anticipate or have a better idea of the phones that are about to be released. We can test them in advance and have a better understanding of how they will behave and make the adjustments that are needed."

Test-Drive Your Phone

The best advice for a car buyer is this: Bring your phone along while you're shopping and make sure it easily pairs with and can access all of the features of the cars you're considering. Some automakers are also being more proactive in helping customers with the process.

"Ford is working very closely with its dealers so that part of the delivery process is pairing your phone," notes Boyadjis. Ford has also partnered with electronics retailer Best Buy to offer customers a better Bluetooth experience. "The Geek Squad is trained on how Sync works and to help Ford customers," Boyadjis says. "And if you purchase a new phone at Best Buy, they'll help you pair it with your Ford vehicle."

Gartner's Koslowski agrees that consumers need to test-drive their phone in a vehicle before a purchase. "But they also have to realize that even if they're successful with pairing a specific phone with a vehicle, it doesn't mean that they will be successful with the next phone they buy," he says. "So this is a moving target, and will remain a moving target for some time." He also believes automakers have to make it easier to make hardware or software upgrades for in-cabin technologies. "Consumers won't be willing to accept it unless car manufacturers offer this pretty soon," he emphasizes.

Of course, another way to escape from Bluetooth blues is to just give up. Because of all the hassles he's had, Koslowski says he stopped using Bluetooth in cars several years ago. "I just use a wired headset for my phone," he says. "Then you don't have to worry about all these issues anymore."