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What is Bluetooth? In-car connectivity tech explained

Bluetooth is now a key piece of in-car tech. We explain what it is and how to use it

Bluetooth logo

If you’ve been anywhere near a mobile phone in the past few years, you’ve almost certainly heard of Bluetooth, and today this data-sharing technology can now be found in almost every modern car. 

Bluetooth forms the basis of most wireless smartphone connections in cars and it allows data, such as streamed audio and telephone calls, to be transferred between two devices without the need for cables. 

Using a Bluetooth connection can help prevent drivers from falling foul of the law, too, as it allows users to make hands-free calls quickly and easily without the additional distraction of actually handling a phone.

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So what exactly is Bluetooth technology and how is it used in cars? Our guide is here to explain everything you need to know.

What is Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is a universal wireless data-transfer tool, and it can be used for connecting a device to compatible accessories such as earphones or, as we’re focussing on here, your car’s infotainment system.

The technology takes its name from Harald Bluetooth, A Danish king who was known for uniting people, just like this technology unites two devices and allows them to transfer data wirelessly. 

Don’t go thinking that you’ll be able to connect across the world, though, as Bluetooth is only intended for short-range use. This means you’ll need to be in close proximity to the device that you wish to pair your phone with.

What can Bluetooth be used for in a car?

If a car has Bluetooth functionality, that means it can pair up to your mobile phone and you’ll be able to use certain functions without having to plug the phone in using a cable. The main reason to do this is so that you can make phone calls hands-free or listen to your own music via the car’s speakers.

Smartphone being paired to a car

On most cars it’s also possible to play music, podcasts or audiobooks from your smartphone via Bluetooth. Just start the relevant app and hit play - the car can control the rest, and you can skip tracks, pause and rewind using controls on the touchscreen or head unit and, in some cases, also on the steering wheel.

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If your car is fitted with wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, you can also connect to these systems via Bluetooth so you don;t have to plug the phone in to a USB port. 

How to pair your phone to your car via Bluetooth

The exact process for pairing a smartphone to a car’s infotainment system via Bluetooth can vary between different models of phone and car, but the general process is as follows:

  1. Switch on the car’s ignition and wait for the infotainment system to load up.
  2. Switch on your Phone’s Bluetooth and make sure that it is set to be discoverable.
  3. Search for your car on the Bluetooth devices list on your phone. This list is usually located within the ‘settings’ menu and, in most cases, the car’s make or model and an identification number will form the device name you are looking for.
  4. Select your car and then wait for the phone and infotainment system to pair. Once this process is complete, you’ll be ready to go. And the car should remember the phone in the future. 

It’s worth noting that some systems may display a four-digit code on both the car’s screen and the phone when you first attempt to connect them. If the same number is showing on both devices, simply press the ‘yes’ or ‘confirm’ option and they will then be paired.

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You can also pair up your phone and car via the car’s touchscreen or voice-activation system, but this can be a bit more of a fiddly process. Activating Bluetooth and searching for devices through an infotainment system often means having to dig through a number of sub-menus. The location of these menus can vary on different cars, too. 

Regardless of which method you choose, once you’ve gone through the pairing process for the first time, your phone and car should reconnect automatically in future. 

Bluetooth will work if you’re near your car, up to about ten metres away. If you’re near your car and take a phone call or play music but can’t hear it, check that the sound isn’t coming through your car’s speakers. You can make sure your car doesn’t hijack your audio by turning off Bluetooth on your phone when it isn’t needed.

How do I make a phone call using Bluetooth?

Once your phone is paired to your car’s infotainment system, it should automatically import your contacts so you can quickly make a call via the touchscreen, steering wheel-mounted buttons or voice activation. If this hasn’t happened, double check your phone’s privacy settings.

Once you’ve selected whoever you wish to talk to and then started the call, you should be able to hear the phone ringing through your car’s speakers and then (provided they answer) the person’s voice. If you’re receiving a call, you’ll be able to answer this via the car’s infotainment system and, again, you’ll then hear everything through the speakers. Either the phone itself or the car’s built-in hands-free microphone will allow you to talk without needing to hold anything.

If the phone is definitely paired but you can’t hear any audio, check that your audio output settings are set to Bluetooth and the call volume is turned up.

How do I stream audio via Bluetooth?

If your phone is successfully paired to your car’s infotainment system, all you’ll need to do is open up your favourite audio streaming app (such as Spotify, Apple Music or Audible) and then select whatever you want to listen to.

Once your streaming app is ready to go, just set your infotainment system’s audio input setting to Bluetooth. Once you’ve done this, hit the play button and you should now be able to hear your music, podcast, audiobook etc. via your car’s speakers. If you can’t hear anything, check the volume level on both your car and phone.

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Shane is responsible for looking after the day-to-day running of the Auto Express website and social media channels. Prior to joining Auto Express in 2021, he worked as a radio producer and presenter for outlets such as the BBC.

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