California Goes Hands FreeMonday, June 16, 2008
On July first, a new California law goes into effect that will impact all mobile phone customers who use their phones while driving—they won’t be able to without a hands-free kit. Many of the Bluetooth aftermarket car kits leave a lot to be desired, as do some built into later-model cars. But the law was passed, as it has been in a few other states, with some exceptions.
In California, for example, commercial drivers are exempted until 2011 and two-way radio operators including first responders and ham radio operators, who use a push-to-talk microphone, may or may not be exempt, depending on whom you ask. The CHP seems to feel two-way radio usage is exempt, but other agencies in the state are not so sure.
Other states that require hands-free phone usage include Connecticut, Washington DC, New Jersey (where text messaging is not permitted but voice usage is), New York and the Virgin Islands. Three states, including New Jersey, ban text messaging, while seventeen states have laws for novice drivers. A number of other states leave the decision up to local jurisdiction, which really complicates things for drivers.
Bluetooth devices seem to be the only choice at the moment and the types of devices are all over the map (Wireless USB, where are you?). But the issue is not simply talking on the phone, it is also setting up and dialing a call, and even answering it. Some of the kits designed to clip onto a sun visor only flash when a call is coming in and they mute your phone’s ringer, while with others it is hard to hear and very noisy.
The best I have found so far as aftermarket hands-free car kits are the Parrot LS and CK series (no, Parrot is not a client nor do I have any affiliation with the company). However, these units require a complex installation procedure. I have installed two-way radios and car kits in vehicles for more than 35 years, but after reading the directions and seeing how many splices were involved in connecting the CK3100LCD unit in one of my cars, I took the unit and the car to a shop and paid for the installation, which cost almost $200.
I have also tried my share of “plug-in devices” that almost work but people complained about the background noise on a regular basis. Also available are aftermarket radios that can be purchased with the appropriate cables for your vehicle, and, in addition to Bluetooth, include an iPod connection and/or an XM or Sirius satellite radio built in. The best website to view the choices is Crutchfield.com. Its prices seem to be comparable to many stores and if you want to do the installation yourself, Crutchfield makes it easy by putting together a kit for your car with all of the cables. Once you figure out how to get your old radio out (there are step-by-step directions for radio removal), putting the new one in is a breeze. The only issue I have with most of these radios is that the microphone is built into the radio, too far away from the driver and thus more susceptible to noise.
If you Google Bluetooth hands-free kits, you will come up with more than 775,000 listings. Only about the first 100 are valid, but you can see that there is a wide choice and these devices are available for very little in today’s competitive market. And using a Bluetooth earpiece and microphone counts as hands-free operation.
As I mentioned, all of these options will take care of hands-free talking on a wireless phone, but then you have to deal with dialing a call, especially if you are not dialing from memory and want to use your phone book. Things get rather strange in this area—on the Parrot CK3100, for example, your phone book is “read” by the Parrot device and stored in it for future use. You can then select the number using the Parrot interface, turning a knob and pushing it in a few times, or you can use its voice recognition system to place a call and it works fairly well.
But even some built-in hands-free car kits are not designed very well. For example, my new car came with Bluetooth built in and it is perhaps the worst implementation I have ever seen. It does let you connect up to four phones, but in order to get it to read and store your phone book, you have to go to the Lexus Bluetooth site and match your phone to the capability of the car’s Bluetooth system. For Verizon, I had to go buy a specific model of a Samsung phone because it was the ONLY one listed that could upload my address book into the car system. Now it turns out that the Verizon BlackBerry, World Edition, will also upload a phone book to my car system. But neither is automatic and you have to set the two devices in the proper mode and then use a send command from the phone and sit and wait while the address book loads.
Once that is done, you can try to train the voice recognition system, which works very poorly. Giving up on that, you can use the address book on the screen—unless you are moving, in which case only your speed-dial numbers are available. Apparently, Lexus is one of the few companies that lock out both the phone controls and the ability to update the navigation system while driving. Fortunately, there is a way to get around everything these days. I bought a system that defeats the Lexus lock-out feature and installed it in my car in a couple of hours. Now, at the push of a button, I can access my phone book. My understanding from talking to others is that this is not an issue with BMW, Mercedes and most U.S. cars, but it certainly made my Bluetooth device less usable for me until I defeated the “feature.”
I have tried many different Bluetooth headsets over the past year but I have a problem finding one that is comfortable for all-day use, and I am not crazy about walking around with one sticking out of my ear all day. Perhaps if I used it only in the car it would work better for me. The one I like best so far is the Jawbone and I seem to get fewer complaints about noise when using it. (An aside here, it is really easy to tell when someone is talking over an iPhone because its microphone is so sensitive it picks up all kinds of road and background noise, sometimes even drowning out the voice of the caller. Hopefully, Apple will have changed the mic or gain control on the new version.)
Getting back to speech recognition for a moment, the other day, I tried to use my BlackBerry’s voice recognition with my car’s Bluetooth system since it seems to be better. In my vehicle, at least, I cannot access any features or functions on my BlackBerry phone except to answer or dial a call, so if I want to use voice recognition, I am stuck with the one built into my car.
I have not had a chance to experiment with the Microsoft system that is built into the full line of Fords this year, but I have heard that it works very well, not only for mobile phones but to control other functions as well. I guess I will have to go to a Ford dealer and try it out. Microsoft has been working on this system for at least five or six years that I know of, and reports are it got it right this time around.
Choosing the proper hands-free solution for a car is tough and even some of the built-in solutions are lacking in many areas. But one thing is sure, unless we all start using voice commands, and the systems we use really work, we will still be distracted when we select and dial a phone number. And what about email? Since it appears as though texting will be banned in more and more states, I guess I need to be able to have my BlackBerry put my latest email up on the car screen so can read it and then speak my answer into the system that will convert voice to text or, failing that, perhaps attach a voice clip to my reply.
There appears to be a lot of opportunity in this area, and there are some really smart people addressing the issues I have raised and a few more. Whatever the solutions, we need the Bluetooth community to work more closely with those who build the Bluetooth devices that go into our cars so there are some standards about how they operate and their level of functionality. In some cars, adding Bluetooth is an option but it won’t be for long unless Bluetooth becomes intuitive and easy to use whether it is in our own car or in a car we rent at the airport.
Andrew M. Seybold