Like it or not, we live in an increasingly ‘connected’ world and our cars are no exception. Cars can connect to our phones, satellites, or even other cars. But what does that really mean for us and why does it matter?
Connecting your car
If you already have sat-nav in your car, it's connected. Basically, your sat-nav communicates with satellites that orbit around the planet, which send and receive signals to your car about where it's going.
For a number of years, cars have enabled drivers to connect their smartphones into the car, initially to use a handsfree phone function, but also, more recently, to access music and even some apps.
Bluetooth car connectivity
The first way we were able to connect phones to our car was using Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to connect devices that are close to each other – like a phone in a car’s centre console.
Most cars have had the ability to be paired with phones using Bluetooth for over a decade, so pretty much every car you buy on cinch should have it.
All you have to do is pair the car with your phone, then it should automatically connect every time you get into the car.
The instructions of how to pair your phone with your car should be in your car’s handbook, or they will pop up on the car’s display. Older cars might ask for a passcode, but newer cars now automatically generate one that you just have to accept on your phone and off you go.
Bluetooth systems have improved hugely over the years and most cars now include it as standard, where it used to be an optional extra, which you could pay hundreds of pounds for.
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In addition to Bluetooth, car manufacturers started fitting USB sockets in cars a number of years ago to allow you to easily connect your phone to your car.
The more premium car brands (think used Audi, used BMW, or used Mercedes-Benz models) were the first to do this, but now almost every new car built in the last few years has them. At the same time, they developed software to enable a phone to transfer data to the car – which was how you could get your phone book loaded into the infotainment system, as well as the music on your phone.
Infotainment systems like Audi’s MMI, BMW’s iDrive and Mercedes-Benz’s Comand all work pretty well, although they have also improved as years have gone by. They enable you to make handsfree calls, play the music from your phone and, more recently can also connect to calendars and email.
Many also work alongside voice control systems, so you don’t have to look at the screen to make calls or skip tracks.
The latest development that links your car with your smartphone is the ability to ‘mirror’ the phone’s screen in the infotainment’s dashboard display.
The most common systems are Apple’s CarPlay (for iPhones) and Google’s Android Auto (for phones using the Android operating system), but there’s also a system called Mirrorlink for phones using either Symbian or Android operating systems.
In most cases, you connect your phone using the USB socket (although some use Bluetooth). Then you find a menu option in the display that allows you to connect to your phone, which you will have to unlock and then accept the connection.
Your car’s display will now look a little like your phone’s – but only a few apps are approved for use in a car, to minimise distraction, so you won’t find most social media apps included. But you can use the icons on the screen, or a voice command, to make a phone call, hear a text read out, change your music, or ask to be routed to a specified destination.
These systems offer not only simple connectivity, but also real safety benefits. Although still not 100% safe and could still be a distraction, using a voice command to do something means that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road for long.
If you don’t have this latest connectivity technology installed in your car, fear not: you can buy and fit what's known as an ‘aftermarket’ (because it's added after the car is built) unit.
There are a wide range of units offering CarPlay or Android Auto from companies that make audio equipment. They cost from just over £300 and you’ll need to get them professionally fitted, but it's a good way to get the latest connectivity technology in an older car.
What's next for connected car tech?
We’re nowhere near finished, in terms of new connected car developments.
Smartphone software is continuing to develop and we’re about to see an explosion of voice assistant use in cars. We already have Siri and Google Assistant, which is now being joined by Amazon’s Alexa. These will have more and more functions – which will be useful and less distracting when we have connected autonomous cars in a few years’ time, and we will have to find other things to do instead of driving.