What is Bluetooth?

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

BuyaCar team
Jun 11, 2021

Most of us don't leave home without our mobile phone, which means we're always connected. Using a phone in the car is dangerous, though, as it causes a distraction - even on a mount. 

Fortunately, we can remain connected because most cars are now available new and used with Bluetooth, which allows contacts and calls to sync with the car's media system, and sometimes other notifications like text messages.

What is Bluetooth?

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

This connection can be made between Bluetooth compatible cars and your mobile phone, allowing you to control functions on your phone via controls on your dashboard or steering wheel, or even voice control.

Common uses include hands-free phone calls or playing music through the car's stereo system.

Is it safe to use Bluetooth in a car?

Whether you're answering a call on your phone, or through the car's screen, it's likely distracting you from the road ahead.

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.

 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.


Latest jargon busters

  1. Electric car glossary: jargon busting kWh and more

  2. What is horsepower?

  3. What is voice control?