5 Ways to Use Bluetooth in Your Car

Asian woman driving convertible car with bluetooth headset

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When Ericsson first began development of the protocol that would eventually become what we now know as Bluetooth, the telecom giant was operating from a position of power, controlling about 40 percent of the nascent mobile market in the entire world. Bluetooth was seen as a wireless replacement for the RS-232 serial communications protocol of the day, which would make it an ideal way to connect small devices, such as phones, with computers and peripherals alike. While that vision turned out to be prophetic, a side effect that nobody ever saw coming was that Bluetooth would also come to form the beating heart of the connected car, which is where we find ourselves today.

Virtually every phone sold today comes with a built-in Bluetooth radio, and an ever-increasing percentage of OEM telematics and infotainment systems, aftermarket head units, and add-on devices also make use of the protocol, leaving us with a vast array of different ways to make use of Bluetooth on the road. For better or worse, Bluetooth is here to stay, so here are five of the best ways you can use Bluetooth in your car.

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Make and Receive Phone Calls

Caucasian man using cell phone and driving car
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This is the functionality everyone knows about, and until recently, it was really the only way to use Bluetooth in your car, so it’s entirely forgivable if it’s also the only use that really springs to mind. This is also the functionality that you’re most likely to run into in OEM head units and aftermarket stereos alike, and you can even add it to an older vehicle with a Bluetooth car kit.

The profile responsible for this functionality is, appropriately enough, referred to as HFP, or hands-free profile. Depending on the head unit and phone in question, you may be able to place and receive calls, dial via your head unit or voice commands, and even access — and edit — your address book via your head unit’s touchscreen interface.

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Send and Receive Text Messages

man in suit texting while driving

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SMS is a dinosaur, developed all the way back in 1984, and shackled to a 160 character limit that was, believe it or not, rationalized due to the fact that most postcards and telex messages examined at the time clocked in at roughly 150 characters. If you aren’t sure exactly what telex is or was, don’t worry too much about it. Just be glad that SMS (and, by proxy, twitter) message sizes weren’t based on the inherent limitations of carrier pigeons.

At any rate, and whether we like it or not, SMS is still a dominant way to see yourself misconstrued in 160 characters or less, and most people have probably, at some point, received a text message while driving. It’s actually pretty dangerous to read, let alone respond to, text messages on the road though, which is where Message Access Profile (MAP) Bluetooth functionality comes in. Infotainment systems and head units with this functionality can pull in text messages from your phone as well as transmit messages back. When paired with text-to-speech functionality, and either speech-to-text or a variety of pre-programmed canned replies, availing yourself of this type of feature is streets ahead in terms of safety.

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Stream Music Wirelessly

iphone playing rock music through bluetooth connection in car

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This is where things start to get fun. If your head unit and phone both support the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), then you can wirelessly stream stereo audio data to your head unit. This is a great way to listen to any MP3s you have on your phone, but if your phone has an Internet connection, you can also use it to stream internet radio and music-on-demand services like Spotify and Pandora.

If your phone and the head unit also support the audio/video remote control profile (AVRCP), you can take it a step further and actually control playback from your head unit. This profile also allows some head units to display metadata, like artist names, song titles, and even album artwork.

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Pump the Internet Into Your Car

Girl with headphones using digital tablet watching video in back seat of car

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Internet radio is great when you’re home or at the office, but what are you supposed to do on the road? Some OEM infotainment systems and aftermarket head units come with built-in apps for playing services like Pandora and Spotify, but, first, you need an Internet connection — and that’s where Bluetooth comes in. If your phone, and mobile provider, support Bluetooth tethering, you can actually pipe your phone’s Internet connection directly to your head unit, opening up a whole world of Internet radio, cloud-based music storage, and other entertainment options.

Data charges can be​ a killer though, and not all providers are cool with this kind of tethering, so you may want to look into a mobile hotspot instead. 

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Diagnose Your Engine Problems

Woman on phone under the hood of broken down car

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No kidding. If you have an Android smartphone, you can actually pull codes, check PIDs, and possibly even diagnose your own check engine light — all via an OBD-II Bluetooth adapter. The key to these handy little scan tool is the ingenious ELM327 microcontroller developed by ELM Electronics. All you have to do is grab some free (or paid) scanner software from the App Store or Google Play, plug one of these scan tools into your car’s OBD-II connector, pair it to your phone, and you’re off to the races.