What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is the in-car connection system that takes inspiration from a medieval king

BuyaCar team
Jan 4, 2022

Nowadays we are always connected, and most of us can’t imagine leaving home without our mobile phone. It’s important to remember, however, that using your phone in the car is dangerous - even on a smartphone holder it can act as a serious distraction.

Fortunately, there are ways we can keep connected on the move in a safer way, with most cars now available with Bluetooth connectivity. This wireless technology allows contacts, calls and, in some cases, texts to sync with the in-car media system.

What is Bluetooth?

A Bluetooth connection enables two devices to connect wirelessly, sending and receiving data between each other. Commonly this is used to enable hands-free phone calls or music playback from your phone on your car’s media system.

In many Bluetooth-compatible cars it’s even possible to control the functions on your mobile phone via your steering wheel or dashboard, even making use of handy features such as voice control or apps that are usually only available on your hand-held device.

Is it safe to use Bluetooth in a car?

Regardless of how you utilise your phone while driving, it can still distract you from the road - whether you’re doing it through your phone or your car’s screen, there is always a risk your attention could lapse, causing an accident.

It may not be illegal to operate your phone as long as it’s in hands-free mode, you can still be prosecuted if a police officer considers you to be driving dangerously due to the distraction caused.

 Cars with Bluetooth 

The first hands-free car kit arrived all the way back in 2001, but it took a while for other manufacturers to join the party. Today, most new mainstream cars come with Bluetooth or at least the option to add it for a fee. That means everything from superminis such as the Ford Fiesta to executive saloons such as the BMW 3 Series will have the tech.

Not all systems are born equal. Entry-level models will merely allow the playback of music through your car’s speakers. While more advanced options bring in the ability to have phone calls through your car. Top of the line models bring voice commands and smartphone mirroring (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) to the table, the latter projecting a simplified version of your phone to the car’s media display.

Using Bluetooth for hands-free calls

Press the phone symbol button on your steering wheel or dashboard and you're likely to be presented with a list of contacts on the dashboard display. You can normally program in your favourites so that they appear first.

To make a call, you typically scroll to the name that you're looking for and then select it. You've also got the option of manually entering a phone number.

An in-car microphone picks up everything that you say, while you hear the person on the other end of the line through the car's speakers.

The stereo pauses any music or radio broadcast when you make a call, or if you receive one. Most models allow you to answer and end a call with a clear button on the steering wheel, which could have a phone symbol on it, or it could be the multipurpose 'ok' button.

Using Bluetooth to play music

Once it has been set up, you can choose to play music from many sources in most cars, including FM radio and DAB digital radio, as well as the decreasingly popular USB, aux cable and CD player, which are making room for the more flexible Bluetooth option.

Every car is different - most will allow you to select music based on playlists, albums, artists, and so on. There will generally be buttons in the centre console, and/or on the steering wheel, to skip tracks and control the volume.

New cars are increasingly supporting music apps such as Spotify or Apple Music, so you're not restricted to music that's been downloaded on your phone. Streaming will use up your data allowance though.

Using voice control with Bluetooth

Modern cars have their own voice assistants, such as Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen. This button can often be multipurpose, for example a short press could summon the car's assistant, while a long press could activate your smartphone's assistant, like Siri.

From here, you can ask anything you would ask your phone normally, such as "Call Dad," and it will access your phone's contacts list. You can also control other apps, as you would normally, such as music playback, or setting reminders, but you should really wait until you've stopped to do this.

Connecting a phone using Bluetooth

Accessing the setup process can be tricky, and is different in every car. A general rule of thumb is to head into the car's phone menu, or settings menu.

Once you're there, you'll normally need to bring up the Bluetooth menu on your phone, which is found in its settings. This allows your phone to be found by the car.

When you see your phone's name on the car's display, select the "connect" (or similar) option and it will probably display a code and ask you to key this into your phone, helping to prevent your car connecting to a stranger's device that might be nearby as well.

Once done, your phone should automatically connect to the car whenever you're inside. If there are two phones that have been paired with the car, you'll usually only be able to use one at a time. Some cars allow multiple devices to be connected at the same time, so whoever receives a call, it'll come straight through the car's speakers - perfect for family holidays, for example.

Using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with Bluetooth

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto replicate your phone's display on a dashboard screen, allowing you to use apps as you would do on your smartphone.

These were initially intended to be used with the phone plugged in, but with wireless phone charging becoming the new norm, many cars began to offer wireless Apple CarPlay, which uses Bluetooth to establish a connection before moving over to a more secure Wi-Fi connection. Android Auto wireless uses a similar method.


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