Bluetooth Wireless Communication

The Bluetooth logo often indicates a product is Bluetooth-compatible.

The Bluetooth logo often indicates a product is Bluetooth-compatible.

As Americans increasingly depend on their cell phones, more people are using them in their cars. Some cities and states have banned that practice, leaving drivers who want to talk on the phone with a choice between headsets or wireless Bluetooth technology.

As of spring 2009, more than 270 million people in the United States own cell phones. That compares to about 33.8 million in December 1995, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

How it Works

Bluetooth enables wireless communication between compatible electronic devices, regardless of brand, that are within about 30 feet of each other. Ericsson developed it in the late 1990s, and Intel, IBM, Nokia and Toshiba joined Ericsson in 1998 to form the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Since then, more than 12,000 companies have joined SIG.

To have their products bear the Bluetooth logo, manufacturers must be members of SIG and meet highly specific product requirements. This ensures that all Bluetooth devices worldwide are compatible with each other, regardless of brand, type of device or country of origin. There are no subscription fees or additional services required for Bluetooth — a compatible device is all you need.

For two Bluetooth devices to communicate, a unique frequency pattern, or a piconet, must be established between them. Piconets are like virtual cables that serve as an interface for the two devices, and they're automatically established via a numerical passkey. Once they're synched up, a Bluetooth-compatible car and a cell phone ride on the same piconet.

Bluetooth in Cars
Steering-wheel-mounted controls, like on this Acura TL, allow drivers to more safely answer calls while driving.

Steering-wheel-mounted controls, like on this Acura TL, allow drivers to more safely answer calls while driving.

Bluetooth allows drivers to make and receive phone calls via their cell phones but through in-car systems, whether factory-installed or aftermarket.

Unlike OnStar, which forwards cell phone calls to an in-car phone, Bluetooth simply changes the device on which your calls are received; the phone number is the same, and charges appear normally on your cell phone bill. No hard-wired connections or docking stations are necessary, and drivers can operate their cell phones either through the car's controls or via hands-free voice activation. Some systems even automatically mute your car's audio when a call is answered.

Although all Bluetooth systems can communicate with each other, some Bluetooth-enabled cell phones feature greater options and functionality in cars than others. If you're shopping for a cell phone after purchasing a Bluetooth-enabled car, review cell phone recommendations from the car's manufacturer.

Bluetooth Options

More than 30 automotive brands worldwide, including Audi and Land Rover, offer Bluetooth-compatible cars. Systems vary from car to car, so be sure to check how it operates before making your choice.

Some cars come with Bluetooth systems as standard equipment; when available as an option, they usually cost about $300. Chrysler's system, called UConnect, includes a rearview-mirror-mounted microphone, a dash-mounted control pad and a hidden Bluetooth receiver. Ford's system, called Sync, allows drivers to bring almost any mobile phone or digital media player into their vehicles and operate them using voice commands or by the car's steering wheel or radio controls. Acura's system, called HandsFreeLink, is voice-activated, and caller, signal and battery strength information display on the instrument panel.

Aftermarket car kits range in price — starting at around $50 — and complexity. Some require professional installation, while some can simply be plugged into a car's cigarette lighter. The Nokia Advanced Car Kit operates calls via remote control and mutes the car radio when a call is answered. The Motorola HF800 Wireless Portable Speaker comes with a speaker and button control pad and can be used anywhere, including in your car.

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