What is Bluetooth?

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

BuyaCar team
May 18, 2018

Bluetooth allows two devices to communicate wirelessly between one another in order to send and receive data.

It works over radio waves and derives its name from a medieval king who united Scandinavia - who was named King Harald Blåtand (translating as bluetooth in english). Folklore also decrees that he ate so many blueberries that his teeth turned blue!

But back to technology. Both devices must support Bluetooth, and may display the symbol (above) to show that they do so.

Once connected, you can usually control functions on your phone by using buttons on your dashboard and steering wheel, or by using voice control software. It's most commonly used to make hands-free phone calls or to play music over the car's stereo system.

Although it's not illegal to operate your phone in hands-free mode, you can still be prosecuted if a police officer considers you to be distracted by it.

 

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 stereo.

The stereo pauses any music or radio broadcast when you make a call, or if you receive one. To pick up, you just press the phone button.

 
Using Bluetooth to play music

This function is commonly found under the media menu in most cars. Once your device is paired with the car, its name will often show up on a display in the media menu.

Select this as your music source and you'll probably find that the last tune you were listening to starts playing on your stereo. For some simple systems, this is as good as it gets: if you want a different album or playlist, then you have to change it on your phone.

Most systems allow you to browse through playlists and albums with steering wheel or dashboard controls, so you never have to pick your phone up to change its tune.

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

Press the button with the voice control symbol (above) and you'll probably hear a bleep. You can then say a command.

The most basic voice control systems only allow you to make calls and require you to record the names of the people you might want to phone, so that when you say "Call Dad", for example, it can match your voice with the recordings.

These systems are quickly being replaced by more advanced software that can analyse speech and work out what you're saying. So when you say "Call Dad" the speech software will recognise that you want to make a phone call, and will then match the word Dad to the correct number stored in your phone. This allows you to call anyone in your phonebook, rather than just the names that you have recorded.

These more advanced systems also allow you to play music from your phone - or an app like Spotify - using voice commands.

Although these systems are improving, they are still likely to make mistakes - particularly if you've got a strong accent. You might say "play Bob Dylan" and find yourself dialling your boss' mobile number at 11pm.

 

Connecting a phone using Bluetooth

If you press the phone button on your car's dashboard display, you'll usually be able to find an option that allows you to add an additional Bluetooth device. This will then search for any compatible devices that are nearby.

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.

 
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. Both have required your phone to be plugged in but future vehicles with Apple CarPlay will support wireless Bluetooth functionality.

Read more about:

Latest jargon busters

  1. What is PCP?

  2. Mpg meaning & WLTP: can you trust the new fuel economy test?

  3. What is Nissan ProPilot?

What our customers say