Modern Technology: phones talking to cars

New Car

I bought a new car last spring. My old car was a 2004 Honda
Civic, which had a radio and a cd player, but no auxiliary jack or
bluetooth. So when my mechanic told me the front end was rotting
out, I thought, “Goodie, I can buy a car that will talk to my
phone.”

[old car]

So in May I bought a bright yellow 2019 Honda Fit. It packs
easily with lots of instruments and suitcases, and the bright
yellow makes it easy to find in a parking lot even before you get
close enough to see the bumper stickers.

[new car]

Connecting the phone

The sales person showed me how to make a bluetooth connection
between the phone and the car, but what the car really wants is to
have a USB cable connection to the phone, so Android Auto can put
maps of where you are and where you want to go on the screen, and
play the music or audiobooks from the phone through the car
speakers.

Unfortunately, this connection was unreliable. Part of the
sales pitch was that if you were in an accident serious enough to
deploy the airbag, the car would call 911 for you. So I kept
muttering, “If it disconnects every time I go around a corner,
what would you bet that it would be still connected after a
serious accident?” I also muttered, “I bought an expensive car
and an expensive phone (Pixel 2XL) and they can’t talk to each other.”

Googling the problem, I found that it wasn’t at all uncommon.
Google’s response was to blame the cable, or dirt in the USB port
on either the phone or the car. I cleaned both ports with a
toothpick, and bought a USB cable directly from google (for $20).

Completely disconnected

The next thing that happened was that the problem stopped being
intermittent; the car and the phone stopped ever connecting at
all. Sometimes plugging in the cable would cause the phone to
reboot.

It was past time to take the car to the dealer for the first
oil change. It turns out that it isn’t the repair people who deal
with phone connection; you go talk to your sales associate. He
was quite calm and pushed some buttons in the phone settings
(faster than I could follow) and said that the phone had gotten
into “safe mode”. This causes the phone to go dead when you’re
driving, and I’m sure I never told it to do that, but Mike said it
sometimes happened with a software update. There had in fact been
a software update about the time I was digging pocket lint out of
the USB port. But Mike was never able to find the “safe mode”
option so that I could do what he did the next time. And he
wasn’t interested in my complaints about how intermittent the
connection had been when it was working.

So the phone disconnected three times in the two miles between
the dealership and my house.

With the phone disconnected, I can play the radio in the car,
but it doesn’t have either an auxiliary jack or a cd player, so I
actually have fewer audio options than I did with the 2000 Civic.

Solved

So I googled harder, and found people who had managed to work
around the problem. One person said it never happened in Airplane
mode, and another person said it happened when Google drive was
updating in the background. There are several ways to work
around this, but what I’m doing now is making sure I have “data
saver” mode set when I’m driving. This means that google drive
will not update if it isn’t in the foreground.

Unfortunately, I have to turn off the data saver mode if I want
to use the phone as a hot spot. Which I wouldn’t normally do very
often, but between how often Comcast unprovisions my cable modem,
and how often Eversource has been turning off my electricity, I’ve
been using the hotspot a lot more than I wish I were. But the
data saver setting is close to the hotspot setting in the menu, so
as long as you remember that you have to set it, it isn’t much
trouble.

Conclusion

One moral of the story is that when you solve a problem like
this, you should always post the solution to the internet (as I’m
doing here), since it’s likely nobody else will tell you.

Another is that maybe there should be better support for
automobile telephony? I’m sure Honda gives their sales associates
some training in how to fix problems, but I doubt that being a
gifted tech support specialist is high on their hiring priority
list for sales people.

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