Bluetooth guide: how to make hand-free calls, stream music and predict breakdowns in an old car

Bluetooth guide: how to make hand-free calls, stream music and predict breakdowns in an old car

The majority of drivers will have heard of Bluetooth, but how many actually know what it does, where it gets its name from and how it opens up a world of useful gadgets and gizmos?

The technology allows for the flow of data between devices, such as a car’s audio system and a driver’s smartphone. It makes it possible to hold hands-free phone calls, or stream music from a phone or media player to the car.

Naturally, there is a vast variety of products on the market that will let drivers make the most of Bluetooth technology. Here we explain how it works and name some of the most useful in-car accessories.

How does Bluetooth work?

It sounds simple but is actually very clever. A Bluetooth device dispenses with the need for any physical link, such as a USB or auxiliary lead, to communicate with another gadget. Instead, it has a computer chip that contains Bluetooth radio, which enables it to send data over radio waves to another, similarly equipped device.

Where is the Bluetooth name from?

It gets its name from Harald Bluetooth, the king of Denmark between 940 and 981 who brought Christianity to the people of Denmark and Norway and encouraged good communications between the two nations.

King Harald’s surname is said to come from confusion over old and new Danish words. Harald was darker skinned than many Vikings. ‘Blaa’ means blue today, but used to mean dark skinned before that; and ‘Tan’ means great man, but is said to have become confused with ‘Tand’, the modern Danish word for tooth. But that’s another story…

Happily, it conjured up images of technology and communication between devices, which suited Ericson, the Swedish company that created Bluetooth technology, perfectly.

Using Bluetooth and smartphones for hands-free calls

Using Bluetooth and smartphones for hands-free calls

In Britain, it’s illegal to handle a phone while driving. Bluetooth technology allows drivers to operate their phone using either voice commands or controls on their car’s dashboard or steering wheel. That way, they can keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, while staying on the right side of the law if they urgently need to make or take a call.

Using gadgets to make hands-free calls

The obvious problem for drivers in an old car is what to do if their smartphone has Bluetooth but their car doesn’t. A cost-effective solution is to buy either a Bluetooth enabled earpiece or speaker that clips to a sun visor.

The likes of Bose, Motorola, Nexxus, Parrot and Platronics are reputable brands. Gadgets cost from around £20 and don’t require any fixtures or fittings. They can import a phone’s contacts and use voice-recognition technology to recognise a name and an instruction to call that person.

Using a sat nav system to make hands-free calls

If your car is comparatively old and lacks both Bluetooth and sat nav, it’s possible to buy a portable navigation unit that will connect to your phone and let you make calls without lifting a finger from the wheel.

Brands including Garmin, Mio and TomTom have some models that include a lifetime upgrade of maps, for free. And because a sat nav’s receivers for GPS (Global Positioning System) are more powerful and reliable than a smartphone’s, they do a better job of getting drivers to where they want to be.

Using Bluetooth to improve your driving habits or warn of engine trouble

Did you know that thanks to the ease with which drivers can access their car’s computers, via the on-board diagnostics port (OBD), it’s possible to monitor driving habits and improve in areas such as fuel economy? Or get an early warning of when something’s wrong with your car?

Breakdown providers including Green Flag (Alert Me) and the AA (Car Genie) have plug-in OBD devices that transmit data to a smartphone and warn drivers when there’s an impending problem. Prices start from £29 a year.

There is a wide range of app developers, across iOS and Android devices, that offer apps to monitor either the health of a car or the way it’s being driven. For example, this can be useful for those who wish to extract maximum mileage on a tank of fuel. Browse the App Store and Google Play for a wide choice.

Why try and predict breakdowns when your local garage could give your car a health check? Book yours here.



James Mills

James is a motoring journalist and former magazine editor at BBC Top Gear and Auto Express. He has scooped, reported on and reviewed most new cars of the past 20 years, and currently contributes to the Driving section of The Sunday Times.