Bluetooth Blues: Why Won't Your Phone And Car Play Nice?

February 8, 2010
New voice activation features should prove invaluable for drivers

New voice activation features should prove invaluable for drivers

If you upgrade to one of today's most popular high-end smartphones—like the iPhone or a Blackberry—from a standard flip-phone, you might be surprised to find that you can no longer take advantage of some of the features in today's most technologically advanced vehicles. Even in Ford's full-featured Sync system, we've observed, you can't access features like text-message delivery or Sync's quick text-response features with the iPhone (when we could with cheaper flip phones).

And in recent months, we’ve encountered more cases of the Bluetooth Blues. We’re not completely sure whether to blame the vehicles or the handsets, but has encountered plenty of issues with spotty incompatibility between handsets and vehicles, and issues in which they won’t pair at all—including from this reader who purchased a new 2009 Audi A4. We’ve definitely detected tones of frustration from project managers and company officials who have told us, in varying ways, that Apple (or Blackberry, or Palm, or -insert major brand here-) “insist on doing things differently.”

Hands-Free Texts? Yes, But…

Driver behind wheel, from Ford Sync Rock On ad

Driver behind wheel, from Ford Sync Rock On ad

At this time (Ford's master chart of handsets was last fully updated on January 11), only 19 models out of the 142 listed are compatible with Sync for SMS text messaging. And to confirm that we're not just technologically inept, among the many not supported: the iPhone, along with everything on the list from Palm and RIM. The latter includes all Blackberry models.

Going forward, compatibility looks poised to improve, however; that’s fortunate as seven states now ban hand-held cellphone use while driving and text messaging is banned for drivers in 19 states plus the District of Columbia.

As Ford announced in the keynote address last month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Los Vegas, the automaker has recently expanded its Sync hands-free interface to support the new Bluetooth Message Access Profile (MAP) standard. RIM, the maker of Blackberry devices, has also announced that it will adopt MAP in more of the company's handsets later this year, said Ford Connectivity Group chief Doug Van Dagens, as part of the address.

What does that mean? With fingers crossed, it's a step in the right direction, toward greater standardization and compatibility, as Ford is definitely in the lead right now with Bluetooth installation. But according to an expert on the matter, it's probably not the end of the delicate back-and-forth dance between automakers that bet on long-term compatibility, and handset-makers that are interested in selling new handsets with new, must-have technology as often as possible.

Why Features Fail

Ford and Microsoft now in Sync

Ford and Microsoft now in Sync

"No matter how robust the system is, there are just too many devices out there to say that any single one is 100-percent compatible," said Mark Boyadjis, an analyst and in-vehicle Bluetooth specialist for the market-intelligence firm iSuppli. Boyadjis says that above anything else, including reputation, "the handset makers are just trying to sell phones."

About 99 percent of handsets now have the so-called Object Exchange Protocol (OEP), which does allow handsets to share information beyond phone calls, but the way to access that information can vary from brand to brand or model to model, so automakers haven't been so thrilled to commit to it. Those issues should be solved with the adoption of MAP, which not only standardizes the transmission protocol but how the messages and information are packaged.

Boyadjis says that a lot of it simply depends on what the chipmakers decided to include with Bluetooth years ago; early on last decade, companies envisioned audio streaming as something that consumers and handset companies would want, so they wrapped the A2DP streaming capability into most handsets—driving vehicle systems to include compatibility for it earlier than they otherwise would have.

Ford's Sync interface and Kia's upcoming UVO system (also codeveloped with Microsoft) are currently the most advanced interfaces, as they're software-driven and very upgradeable. Boyadjis says that some of the other systems used in today's vehicles are still hardware based and will increasingly have compatibility issues moving forward because they're just more difficult to upgrade.

Don’t Upgrade; Get A New One

Most handsets do have the capability to be updated on the software side for enhanced Bluetooth functions, but handset makers aren't likely to offer the option. "Here it's a business decision, not a technology decision," Boyadjis says, adding that MAP could be quite easily reflashed to the Bluetooth chipset for either handsets or vehicles, but in vehicles it's a much more reasonable upgrade.

Indeed, Ford spokesman Alan Hall confirmed that the automaker is considering implementing a MAP software upgrade available on Sync going back to the 2008 model year.

Ford's Sync implementation of Microsoft's automotive platform provides several modes of connectivity

Ford's Sync implementation of Microsoft's automotive platform provides several modes of connectivity

Although luxury makers have been installing Bluetooth for several years, it was Ford that really kick-started the market by offering its Sync interface on nearly all of its vehicles shortly after introducing the interface in 2007. Sync is now offered on all new Ford vehicles except the 2010 Ford Ranger pickup.

In calendar-year 2007, just 9.4 percent of vehicles had Bluetooth; for 2008, but mainly thanks to Sync, that jumped to 22 percent in 2008, then on to 42 percent for 2009. iSuppli anticipates a 51-percent installation rate in 2010 and a 78-percent rate in 2016.

Boyadjis can see the market "continuing to grow as solutions are deployed at the low end of the market." Simply put, Bluetooth will become standard on more vehicles, and when it's optional it will be at even lower cost.

Bang & Olufsen Bluetooth

Bang & Olufsen Bluetooth

Looking ahead, Bluetooth is going to remain the preferred (and only) interface for in-car calling, though it's not the solution for more advanced features. The Bluetooth standard dates back about 15 years and was originally intended as a wireless standard for computer peripherals, and even though it's been upgraded, it's just too slow to pass data at normal high-speed Internet rates between handsets or other devices and vehicles.

"Straight up, Bluetooth won't handle a high-bandwidth Internet transfer," said Boyadjis. "If we really want streaming video, that's not going to happen at Bluetooth speeds now," and there's not much room for upgrading as the proposed Bluetooth 3.0 standard still wouldn't allow much more practical speed, he said. For anything else device makers might need to adopt a version of 802.11, which is used for household wireless routers and even some peripherals now. .

Why some phones won't even pair

Sometimes the incompatibility goes beyond simply not being able to access some features—like the phonebook, or text messaging—and you can't even connect phone and vehicle in the first place. Boyadjis says that there are two main reasons for pairing complications: 1) a poor interface or poor in-vehicle design (he pointed to the clunky, obstinate Bluetooth interface of a particular German luxury maker, even though it uses up-to-date Bluetooth innards); or 2) incompatibility in and of itself, which is often an issue with older vehicle designs—even some that remain on sale. In the latter, one of the devices typically gets hung up on the object protocol, looking for pieces of information on the phone, and won't simply give up and revert to the most basic version for calling.

Boyadjis recommends: "First ask, does your handset have the same features as the vehicle system? If you don't have a matching set of profiles, something's going to fail."

Start by consulting the automaker’s Web site for more information, but we still advise to bring your phone along on the test drive, have the salesperson show you how to pair it and how to call or text, and make sure it works to your satisfaction. These hiccups aren’t going away any time soon, but there's hope that we'll be a little less frustrated a year or two from now.

That said, a new handset is small change if you really like the vehicle.

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