Automate your Android phone in the car with NFC, Bluetooth

With the help of a free app and inexpensive or free NFC tags, you can automatically put your compatible Android phone into a customized "car mode" whenever you hit the road.

Car cradle, phone, NFC stickers, and transit card
Here's everything you'll need to automate your phone in the car. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A few weeks ago, Garmin released a car kit that uses NFC to automatically launch the Navigon navigation app when a compatible smartphone is placed within its arms. Being an Android fan and a tinkerer at heart, my first thought was, "I could DIY something better than that," and now I'm going to show you how.

You'll need:

  • An NFC compatible Android phone. I'm using the LG Nexus 4 , but check your specs to make sure that your personal handset is compatible with the technology.
  • An app that can receive instructions from NFC. I'm using Trigger -- the app formerly known as NFC Task Launcher.
  • An NFC tag. You can find them for cheap online, but I'm going to be reusing an old transit pass. If you have one lying around, give it a try and you may save a few bucks.
  • Some sort of car cradle. I've got dozens of these lying around my desk, but any suction cup or adhesive mount that your phone will fit into will do.

Step 1: Set up your NFC trigger

Trigger app for Android
You'll use the Trigger app to assign custom commands to your NFC tag. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

If NFC isn't already enabled on your compatible handset, take a trip into your settings to activate it under "Wireless & Networks > More..." Now, install the Trigger app on your Android phone. If you're cheaping out and reusing a transit tag like I am, you'll need to install a plug-in called Trigger: Tag Reuse Plugin; it's also free.

With the apps and plug-in installed and launched, hit the "+" icon in the upper-right corner to get started setting up your automation. Trigger supports a variety of triggering events, but today we'll be starting with the NFC option. Select it from the list and then either tap "Next" or swipe left to continue.

Step 2: Set up your actions

Trigger app for Android
Here, I'm telling Trigger to enable Bluetooth and connect to my car's hands-free calling and audio-streaming system. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Now comes the fun part; where you tell your phone what you want it to do. Tap the "+" icon in the upper left to be presented with a list of Actions that Trigger can employ.

I like to set my display brightness to full, disable screen timeout, automatically enable Bluetooth, connect the phone to my car for audio streaming and hands-free calling, and maximize the volume.

You can also tell Trigger to activate GPS, automatically fire up your favorite navigation app (such as Scout, Waze, or Google Maps) or your favorite podcasting or audio-streaming service, have it fire off a quick Glympse or social-network update with your ETA to friends or family, or even automatically begin navigating to your home address or office. On Samsung phones, you can set Trigger to activate TouchWiz's car interface.

The sky's the limit here, but try starting off with just a few simple tasks. You can always add more or remove them later.

Step 3: Write your NFC tag, test it

Transit card and Nexus 4
You can purchase NFC tags online, but if you've an extra NFC-enabled transit pass lying around, it may work just as well. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Name your task list and tap "Next" or swipe left once more; ignore the options for "Setup switch" for now; and tap "Done." Trigger will now ask you to place your phone over your NFC tag to write and save your instructions. Do that and, once that app is finished writing, tap "Done" again.

Now, you can test your automation by touching your NFC tag to the back of your device.

Step 4: Figure out where to place your NFC tag in the car

Upcycled NFC transit card
Next, I mounted my upcycled NFC transit card to a suction-cup car kit with double-sided tape. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Whether you're using an improvised tag or a store-bought one, you'll need to experiment to find the perfect placement. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Once you're satisfied with your tag and your tasks, you need to find somewhere to place the tag in your car. I attached mine to a suction-cup mounting kit, which is where my phone lives while I drive. With NFC stickers, you can just peel and stick. If you're using a nonadhesive tag (or upcycling an old NFC transit card), you'll need to use glue, tape, or rubber bands.

If you don't use a car kit, you could put your tag on the dashboard and tap it when you enter the vehicle. You could also put the tag in your console or in your cupholder. The range of NFC recognition varies from tag to tag, so you'll want to make sure that you can directly touch your phone's NFC reader with the tag. Experiment with the placement before you permanently affix your tag.

Step 5: Tap to trigger

Car Mode 2 notification
When you place your phone in the cradle, you should see a notification. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Now, when you get into your car and drop your phone into your car kit, your Trigger actions should automatically trigger. Take some time to tweak your settings, if things don't exactly work the way you want, and then enjoy spending less time fiddling with your smartphone before every trip.

Optional step 6: Set up an exit task

Trigger app for Android
I set up a second task to automatically reverse my Car Mode changes when I disconnect from the car's Bluetooth. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Now that you've got your phone set to automatically enter your personal "Car Mode" settings when you're driving, you'll need to figure out how to set it back to your default settings when you're not. You could use Trigger to create a set of "Switch" tasks and just tap your tag again before exiting the vehicle, but I don't want to have to remember to tap again at the end of every trip.

What I like to do is to set up a second set of tasks to put my phone back into a "Pocket Mode" when I shut down and leave the vehicle.

From the Trigger home screen, hit the "+" button to create a new set of tasks and choose Bluetooth as the trigger, rather than NFC. In the resulting menu, select the radio option "When disconnected from" and then choose your car's Bluetooth ID from the list below. Hit "Next," then "Done," and swipe left to begin adding actions.

Trigger app for Android
Now, there's a Car Mode that triggers when entering and a Pocket Mode that triggers when exiting the vehicle. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I chose to disable Bluetooth, set my screen brightness back to automatic, and set my display timeout to a reasonable interval. Basically, undo all of the settings that you chose when setting up your Car Mode. Save the Task by clicking "Done" and you're all set.

Now when you leave your car, disconnecting from its hands-free calling system, your Car Mode settings will automatically be reversed.

NFC tags come in a variety of sizes. Users without NFC can set up similar automation with Bluetooth. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Users without NFC-enabled phones
For those running Android phones that aren't rocking NFC, you can still use Trigger states to automate your phone. Instead of NFC, you'll just be using the "When connected..." and "When disconnected..." Bluetooth trigger states. Just keep in mind that you'll need to leave Bluetooth on always for the app to recognize your car and to work automatically.

 

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