Can’t My Phone and My Car Just Get Along?
Inconsistencies with Bluetooth technology cause consumer frustration on a large scale.
Even with the fierce competition among automakers in the tech sector -– and the resulting fragmentation when it comes to interfaces and features -- the fact that Bluetooth has been so universally adopted is a good thing for car buyers and automakers.
That the system can also be very frustrating, though, is not.
Anyone who has ever tried to pair a new or existing phone with a new or existing vehicle has probably experienced some form of this. As someone who constantly tests new vehicles from a tech standpoint, I experience it more often than I’d like. And it’s yet another example of how carmakers are typically behind the technology curve.
In theory, Bluetooth should work consistently as long as the car and the phone both have the requisite technology. (And, in theory, slow drivers would always move to the right when others behind them want to pass.) In reality, though, inconsistencies between the Bluetooth capabilities of cars and those of phones are common.
A big part of the problem is that Bluetooth software is baked into cars at the time they’re manufactured, and can’t be updated. While the Bluetooth software is usually baked into phones as well, in most cases the phones are much newer than the car due to the time disparity in production cycles between the two. And the problem is compounded by the fact that most people tend to own a car for much longer than they do a phone -- and can go through several phones in the same period they own a single vehicle.
Typically at issue is that a phone’s software and firmware are often updated by the owner to get new and better features. But sometimes updates are pushed out by wireless carriers as “over the air” updates without the phone’s realizing the update has taken place.
The problem can also stem from the opposite -- a phone owner who never updates the software on the device. I came across this last year when I was asked to help an older and not so tech-savvy driver of a Hyundai Equus set up his BlackBerry to work with the system. I paired my iPhone 4 and the system worked great.
Later, I got an irate phone call from the guy, upset that the system wasn’t working. I checked it out the next day and found that, when using the phone's address book, the system would show a call in progress without actually initiating the call in the first place.
I talked to several contacts at Hyundai and we couldn’t figure it out until we finally zeroed in on the phone’s software. I asked the owner when was the last time he had updated the software on his BlackBerry -- it had been almost two years. When the phone’s software was updated, everything worked great.
User error was to blame in this case, but usually it’s an incompatibility on the car’s part. I spoke with the president of the American division of a German luxury brand about issues with Bluetooth once. He told me he and his wife drove the same cars and had the same phones, but had different Bluetooth capabilities when they pair them.
Chances are once you’ve owned a vehicle for a while you’ll get used to the quirks of its Bluetooth system -- at least until you buy a new phone, that is. And while several automakers have started allowing the software of their infotainment systems to be upgraded to accommodate new features, this doesn’t encompass the baked-in Bluetooth “stack.”
And as more automakers start to debut smartphone integration as the next evolutionary step in staying connected in the car, and use Bluetooth as the primary link, these incompatibility issues do not bode well for decreasing consumer frustration.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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