GPS Vehicle Tracking Devices Made Simple

I think we’ve all been there before. You have this vehicle that you just wish that you could track.  You might be a business owner, or a concerned parent, or a victim of grand theft auto.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever your reasoning, GPS vehicle tracking is something that is accessible to individuals at all levels of technological familiarity. Anyone can track a vehicle if they are equipped with a little understanding and the right hardware for the job.

What we hope to do here with this post is give anyone all the knowledge they need use a GPS tracking system for their vehicle. We will go step by step through the whole process and by the end any person should be able to understand what this powerful technology allows them to accomplish as well as some steps for them to take to get their car, van, or truck tracked with GPS.

What Is GPS Vehicle Tracking?

Its always good to start at the very beginning. I hear its a very good place to start. When we begin, we start with GPS. This acronym stands for the Global Positioning System. It is a constellation (fancy word for group) of satellites operated by the United States Air Force. These satellites float around in outer space beaming a special signal down to earth. These signals are used by a whole bunch of devices and can be heard using a special receiver, or chip.

This GPS tracking chip will “hear” the signal and learn several different things from it. The most important things that it is going to learn is the satellite that sent the signal and how long ago it sent the signal. The GPS chip will then do some fancy math and determine where on earth it could be in relation to that one satellite.

Earth From Space

Now I want you to imagine that you are a man floating out in space looking down on the earth. You have the black expanse of space ominously looming behind you as you gaze at that beautiful blue ball that we call home. Looking down (you have super eyesight) you notice some interesting things about points on the earth in relation to yourself. First, there is one point just below that is the closest point on the earth to you. The second thing is that all the points that are not right below you have other points that share their distance with that point. All the points that share the same distance from you can be connected together and they will make an “o” (circle) shape on the ground. Having more than one point as the distance from you is the norm when looking down on the earth from space.

Now back to our GPS vehicle tracking – specifically our understanding of how many satellites are needed for a tracking chip to know where it is in the world. Just one satellite message is probably not going to give you your exact location. Unless you are directly under a satellite (only around 32 points on earth exists just like this) your GPS chip is going to need to get some help from other satellites to determine where it is. The magic number is 4 total satellites are needed to get a really solid position.

What has been described above is the standard way all GPS devices work. They all require access to the signals from these satellites to figure out its position. If it cannot get these signals (i.e. it is in a cave, an underground parking structure, at the bottom of a lake, river, or ocean, or it is being jammed by a GPS blocker) then it will not be able to be tracked. This is important for those thinking about how they want to use their vehicle tracking device.

The next thing that we should understand about any tracking system is that is needs a way to communicate the location information that the tracking chip calculates to you, the person who is using the vehicle tracker. This is something that standard GPS devices simply do not do. For example, you cannot take your standard GPS navigation device, say a Garmin nüvi 265WT, stick it in a car, and expect to be able to track it. It just doesn’t work that way because these devices have no way to communicate information to people outside the vehicle they are in.

Instead, you are going to need a device that is specifically made for tracking purposes. Car tracking devices generally have both a GPS chip built into it as well as some sort of communication hardware. In most cases this is going to be a cell phone modem for communication over the wireless networks that paint themselves across America, but there are a few instances where the tracker could communicate via commercial communication satellites. Chances are though any tracker you are going to use will use a cell phone network, so we will focus on how that works.

Your vehicle tracking system will now take the information that the tracking chip has calculated and send this out over the cell phone network much like a person would send a text message (SMS) or email. This data is sent from the device to the tracking provider. The tracking provider will make this information available to their users – in this case you and whomever you decide to share it with – through a clean web interface that will either be Google Maps or at least closely resemble it.

That, in a nutshell, is what GPS vehicle tracking is – it is the seamless combination of GPS location technology and wireless communication technology into one powerful device.

GPS Vehicle Tracking Devices

There are many different devices out there from a wide range of manufacturers and distributors. We cannot go through each of them and talk about the different vehicle tracking devices that they offer and how you can use them. That would take up too much time and would probably be pretty boring to read. Instead, what we want to do here is briefly describe the two main categories of devices and discuss some of the various pros and cons for each of them. The two types of GPS vehicle trackers out there are built-in device and standalone device.

Built-in GPS Vehicle Tracking Devices

These are the most commonly used devices for fleet vehicle tracking. Being built in to the vehicle gives them extreme flexibility and power, enabling almost constant tracking for vital performance metrics for businesses. Also, by being well tied into the internal workings of the vehicle also has its advantages. For example, some GPS vehicle trackers allow remote control of certain functions of the car.

Is your driver idling the car for too long at a service call? Simply cut his engine for him! Did your delivery person accidentally lock the keys in the ignition of the delivery van? Unlock the doors remotely for her! You can many of these things with fleet tracking devices built specifically for the purpose. And these features are not just limited to commercial applications, many consumer oriented trackers also offer these feature to their customers as well.

Most built in trackers do require a professional install since theses devices do become integral part of the vehicles electrical and computer systems. Some trackers just plug into a special port under the steering wheel (called an OBD-II port) and don’t require any special attention from a professional installer, which means that you can install it yourself once you get the piece of equipment in the mail.

I did want to clear up on point of possible confusion before going on to talk about standalone trackers. By using the phrasse “built-in” I might have given the wrong impression. I do not necessarily mean something like OnStar. It does not have to be built into the car when it is made or even shortly after it is made. It just needs to get its power from the vehicle. Another phrase I could have used was hard-wired.

Other possible applications:

  • Teen driver tracking
  • Theft recovery
  • Catching a cheater
  • Business mileage calculator

Standalone GPS Vehicle Tracking Devices

Standalone trackers are usually versatile GPS tracking devices that are not necessarily bound to a single function. Take the Zoombak line of products. There are two main trackers that they sell. The Advanced GPS Car & Family Locator and the Advanced GPS Universal Locator. These devices are essentially the same, the only difference being the branding that they’ve done. This is pretty much going to be the standard for all portable, standalone trackers.

One thing that you have to be aware of is that standalone trackers cannot really compete with the built-in vehicle tracking systems because they are not set up for real time GPS tracking in the same way. While a built in tracker can produce an avalanche of data and never run out of batteries a standalone tracker can only track as long as the battery has a charge. The Zoombak can give 150 locates before it runs out of battery. This is a pitiful number when compared with fleet tracking devices.

But what they lack in longevity these devices make up in versatility. A built in car tracker isn’t going to be much good once you take it out of the car. In fact, you can’t really take it out of the car to be used on your teenage daughter as she goes through Central Park. Devices like the Zoombak provide comprehensive tracking support for most personal tracking needs.

Another feature of the portable trackers is that they are often easily concealable. If you are trying to track a vehicle incognito then something small is definitely going to be what you want to go with. While it still isn’t the very best money can buy for this type of application, you will still get a lot of bang for you buck.

Other possible applications:

  • Most non-vehicle GPS tracking functions, including:
    • Sport tracking
    • Pet tracking
    • Child tracking
  • Covert tracking of cars

The Cell Phone As Vehicle Tracker

Sony Ericsson w995 cell phoneA word here needs to be said about the ubiquitous cell phone. Did you know that these devices are the most common GPS trackers on the planet? They can easily be utilized to become full fledged vehicle trackers. Even if you don’t have a cell phone to spare you can install some sweet (and free) cell phone tracking software for your phone. If you are looking for a good program for your phone then you should check our list: free GPS cell phone trackers.

Do I Need A Vehicle Tracking System?

Now that you have gotten a little bit more information about the devices that are going to make up your vehicle tracking system you have a decision to make. Is GPS vehicle tracking something that you actually need? The costs associated with this type of real time tracking is certainly not cheap. The cheaper devices start at around $100 and they only go up from there. Then there is the monthly subscription fee that all tracking providers require to operate correctly. In the first year alone you can reasonably expect to spend around $500.

Businesses obviously have the most to gain by implementing these devices as part of a fleet management system. Private individuals may save some money on insurance premiums by having a tracker, but the real offset is the value that you receive from having one of these devices. Is it enough to justify purchasing a vehicle tracker?

Real Time GPS Tracking

When most people think of tracking someone they think of real time GPS tracking. They want to know exactly where a person or object is at any given moment of time. They want to sit at their computer and be able to follow the tracker’s movements on a Google Maps like interface. In essence, people want to be a little like God – knowing where someone is at any given moment in the day.

If you haven’t tried it, you should.

What follows is a look at some of the common questions people might have about real time GPS tracking. Its not a definitive list, its just a start.

What Is Real Time GPS Tracking?

Real time GPS tracking is the process where a device communicates its position over a wireless communication network to a 3rd party. This third party then makes the information available on the Internet for the user to access.

Essentially the device is a combination of a GPS and a cell phone. Once the GPS figures out where you are the cell part of the tracker sends that information to the tracking provider. The provider takes the raw data, puts it on a map, and then lets you look at the map online in a slick interface that often uses Google Maps.

Like I said before, if you haven’t tried it yet you should.

How Does Real Time GPS Tracking Work?

The process is called trilateration and it involves some math. Some fancy math at that. But what you need to know is that there are dozens of satellites in orbit around the wolrd right now put up there by the folks in the United States Airforce. These satellites put out a constant stream of low energy radio signals that have data encoded in them.

Your GPS tracking device receives these signals and is able to calculate how far it is away from each of the satellites it receives the message from. Once it has 4 of these distances calculated it can determine its location on the surface of the earth to within just a few meters.

Now that it has calculated its position it will now try and broadcast the information to the tracking provider. Some real time trackers use cell phone networks to do this transmission while others use communication satellites. Both have their place, but most tracking devices that work in real time are going to work off of a cell phone network.

Once this information is calculated and transmitted the tracking provider gives you access to the information through a website. Sometimes they will let you share the info in a widget on a personal blog or Facebook, or they might let you send secure text messages or emails with your location to a select group of people.

Can You Block A Real Time Tracker?

Yes. And blocking is actually much easier than you think. Let’s say that you think you are being tracked by someone against your will and in an illegal way. Perhaps an estranged ex-boyfriend is showing up in strange places. Definitely call the police and have them do a once over of your vehicle, but then go out and buy a GPS blocker. (Update 4/16/2012:  GPS jammers are illegal and should not be used.  After several events in recent years the US government has really began to crack down on GPS jammers since they pose a significant risk to public safety and  national infrastructure.  Consumers should not buy these devices unless they are approved by the FCC.  Any jammer in use should be retired and an alternative method to ensure location privacy should be employed since penalties for jammer use could exceed $100,000 and include jail time.)

This small device will scramble the incoming GPS signals so that they can’t get to the device. The tracker will be unable to tell where it is and the tracking will stop. These devices generally have to be plugged into your car and have an effective sphere of several yards. They are illegal in some places, so be sure to check to see if you are allowed to own and operate them in your car.

There are other ways to stop real time tracking that don’t involve owning a potentially illegal device. If the device is your cell phone then turn the phone completely off (and take out the battery if needed). This will prevent anyone from using your phone as a tracking device.

Types Of Real Time GPS Tracking:

There are a few different types of real time tracking. Here is a brief synopsis of each of them to give you an idea of what exactly they are.

Car tracking devices

Real time car tracking devices come in two main varieties: hardwired and stand alone. There are benefits to each of them, but in most applications a hardwired device is going to be the way that you want to go. Hardwired real time trackers benefit from getting their power from the vehicle itself, making nearly continuous, long term tracking a possibility.

This is incredibly important for tracking a teen driver, recovering a stolen vehicle, or improving fleet performance. Some hardwired trackers do require a professional installation or some familiarity with vehicle electronics. Others are so easy to install you can do it yourself. Just slide it into the OBD-II port and you are good to go.

Stand alone real time trackers will work just like the hardwired variety and have the same costs but will need to constantly have their battery recharged. Let’s use the popular stand alone tracker, the Zoombak, to get some sort of bearing on the difference between the two. According to the Zoombak website, the tracker can perform 150 locates (determining the device’s position via GPS and then transmitting that information over a wireless network to Zoombak) before the battery runs out. If you only do 1 locate every 3 minutes you only have 7.5 hours of constant, real time tracking with the Zoombak. You will need to recharge the device a lot if you want to use it for certain applications.

Don’t get me wrong, it will still work and may even work better in certain applications. You just want to make sure you know what you are getting into.

Cell phone tracking software

Did you know that cell phones are the most widely used real time GPS tracking devices in the world? Its true. It was on CNN:

Pretty much any cell phone can be located in real time just by being turned on. Not all cell phones can be located by YOU, but they can be located by your cell phone carrier who can then give that information to the police or some other government agency. Some cell phones have the capability to contact third parties if special software is installed on them.
It is this software than can turn a cell phone into a real time tracking device for normal people like you and me.

There are two types of software out there that let you track a phone in real time. The first is free GPS cell phone tracking software. Some of these free tracking programs are actually incredibly powerful and let you do tons of things with them. Most free trackers are designed to be used by willful participants and are not necessarily going to work as secret real time GPS trackers. Things like Google Latitude, InstaMapper’s GPS Tracker, and Lookout Mobile Security can give you pinpoint locations for the cell phone – they just all require account creation and are easily accessed from any smartphone.

Paid real time GPS tracking programs are also available, but these only should be purchased if you are trying to do something very specific that a free tracker will not allow you to do. One thing that a lot of paid services provide is cell phone monitoring in addition to the real time tracking. These services let you see incoming and outgoing calls, read text messages, and see Internet usage. These programs are extremely powerful and can be set up to run “silently” so the user of the phone doesn’t know that they are there.

Personal GPS trackers

Don't get trapped adventuring without a real time GPS tracking device!

Personal real time GPS tracking devices are generally about one thing – safety. If you can imagine a group or community that might benefit from having their position readily accessible by concerned loved ones then you can rest assured that there is probably already a tracking devices for that market. There are real time trackers for kids, for teenagers, for Alzheimer’s patients, and for outdoor adventurers– just to name a few.

None of these trackers can hold a candle to the sheer amount of data that they can collect when compared to a built in GPS tracker in a car, but in a pinch these devices can save a life. They suffer from short battery life since they try to be small and concealable. Some only have a real time battery life of a few hours. However, most of these devices are better when used on demand. You simply find there device when you actually want to.

The Future of Real Time GPS Tracking

Everyone is going to be using this technology in the future. If not for themselves then in some other way that benefits them. Governments are becoming increasingly aware that providing real time data on public transportation improves user’s experience. Companies are realizing that tracking data is fun and interactive. And privacy barriers are being increasingly eroded by childhoods saturated in Internet culture. The question that still remains for use to determine is how we will own this new technology and make it integral parts of our lives in the future. Real time GPS tracking is the future. Is that a future you are looking forward to?

4 Types of Tracking Devices Explained

When you think about tracking devices these days your mind will automatically go to toward thinking about GPS. Our culture has enough exposure through experience, news shows like 60 Minutes, and crime show dramas that GPS tracking can be incredibly useful for law enforcement purposes. But we are also beginning to realize that the ability to have tracking devices on our person at all times is also a desirable condition. We think of how useful it would be to attach a GPS watch to an Alzheimer’s patient so that if they wander off they can be easily located by their family. Or we might see how beneficial it might be to be able to monitor our teen’s driving while they are out on the road using the family car. We may even see how easily a tracking unit could help us make a decision about whether or not a spouse is cheating on us, the location information provided by a data logging GPS confirming our suspicions about their fidelity.

With all this utility staring us in the face it is no wonder that we are becoming a GPS-centric society. New devices and new ways to track things are being introduced at an ever increasing pace. Tracking technology still has a long way to go, and as our ability to make more powerful satellites, more accurate time pieces, and more sensitive GPS receivers continues to grow our ability to do more with tracking devices will increase. As this happens, more and more of our tracking dreams will become a reality.

In the mean time, lets take a look at the current state of tracking devices to help us get an idea of what is possible and where things might end up going to.

Cell Phone Tracking Devices

iPhone GPS Tracking

The first tracking device that most people are going to recognize is the cell phone. This is probably the most widely used tracking device today but very few people actually realize that there cell phone can be used to track their movements. All a cell phone needs is a signal from a cell phone tower and to be turned on for it to be one of the most powerful tracking devices on the market.

The way this particular device works is going to depend on your cell phone make and on the provider that you use, but you can summarize how each works by bringing up the principle of trilateration. How this works is that the cell phone does some fancy math to determine its location based upon the know location of either a cell phone tower or a GPS satellite, telling the mobile phone exactly where it is at any given moment in time. (I have explained this concept in my post about how GPS tracking watches work, so you can see that article if you want a more in depth explanation.)

This has obvious implications as a personal tracking device. Since most people use cell phones in some capacity almost everyone is going to be able to be tracked in this way. Now some phones and phone service providers like to make the tracking function of their phones widely know – for example the iPhone, Blackberry, and other smartphones will shout this information from the top of their lungs – but there are a lot of other phones that offer this functionality that can be used as tracking devices on a consumer level. The reason that I say on the consumer level is that the police and other first responders have the ability to track cell phones of all varieties, thanks in part to a 2005 law requiring this functionality for emergency response purposes.

Some mobile providers will offer consumer grade tracking on their phones as part of a family tracking plan. I have seen rates for this starting at $5 a month – which is really inexpensive for those who already have the data plan that these programs often require. But there are also ways to get GPS tracking on your cell phone for free. I have compiled a list of free GPS applications for cell phones, but these services are generally restricted to certain phones and require that you have a robust data plan to take full advantage of their functionality. They are extremely powerful and cheap, but even cheap GPS tracking can be expensive if you can’t afford a data plan for your phone.

Vehicle Tracking Devices

Another type of tracking device that people are going to think about are vehicle tracking devices. These are really commercial grade trackers that offer a whole host of important fleet management features for businesses and corporations. Some of the better devices can do much more than simply track the movements of a vehicle. They can:

  • Give directions to a driver, making routing and other business related activities much easier and much more efficient.
  • Monitor important vehicle metrics like speed and direction as well as other vehicle performance indicators like the ease of stops and starts.
  • Cute an idling engine that has been running too long.
  • Turn off vehicle lights that have been left on by a driver.
  • Give GPS coordinates to the authorities in case of a theft or medical emergency.
  • Serve as an electronic and positional time card, helping workers work harder while on the clock.

The thing about vehicle tracking systems is that they are anything but cheap. The tracking device itself will run you several hundred dollars depending on the level of functionality that you want the device to have.  GPS bus tracking devices are going to be different than GPS fleet tracking devices because they will do different things. They will therefore have different costs associated with them.

Another things about vehicle tracking that is going to raise the price a bit is paying for the tracking service with your provider. This can range from tens of dollars per unit to hundreds of dollars per unit. Most companies are going to give you a reduced price for each unit you track, but there is little you can do to reduce costs here expect for try and find a free GPS tracking software package. These do exist, but instead of money you will have to invest time to get the system to work just like you want it. For some individuals it is just going to better to go with a paid tracking service.

Car Tracking Devices

Very similar to vehicle tracking devices, car tracking devices are used track a car or vehicle but they often lack some of the functionality that the more commercial grade vehicle trackers might have. For example, a car tracker usually doesn’t have the ability to lock and unlock doors, cut the engine, or notify a driver if they are idling too long. A vehicle tracker does this because that is the market it is catered to (businesses with fleets of vehicles it wants to monitor) while car trackers appeal to individuals who want to see where their car is or to recover a stolen vehicle. In the world of GPS car tracking, there are two main uses: to monitor an individual’s activity or to recover a stolen vehicle.

There are a few different reasons why a person might want to install a GPS tracking device inside of a car for the purpose of people monitoring. One reason is that the person might be a suspect in an ongoing police investigation and the police want to monitor their activity without the cost associated with physical surveillance. Using GPS is a lot more cost effective, and as long as a warrant has been obtained, they can track an individual for as long as the court deems appropriate.

Zoombak GPS Tracker

Another reason might be to keep track of a teen’s driving habits. By installing a GPS device in their car you can get a lot of information about how they drive, where they drive, and when they drive. This can be used to enforce family driving rules and create a safe environment for them to drive in. Teen drivers have one of the highest incidents of fatal car crashes of the age groups recorded by insurance companies, so finding a way to help them drive safely should be the top priority of any parent. For some, this means using a GPS tracking device as an aid.

Still another reason to install a car tracking device would be to see if a spouse is cheating on you. While most of the time a tracking device is only going to tell you where your spouse has been, this knowledge can be extremely useful in determining the truth about their actions. If they said they are going to a friends house but their car ends up somewhere else then you know that something might be going on with them. You can call them very innocently and ask them how so-and-so’s house is going and if they tell you that everything there is fine even though they are not there you might know that something is up with them and that you should maybe investigate things further.

For each of these uses you will notice that being able to do a lot of the stuff that GPS vehicle tracking can do is superfluous. What a person in this situation needs to do is be able to track the movements of a person – and not always in real time either. While it is nice to be able to track a teen in real time or to see if a spouse is cheating as it happens, a data logger will generally do just as a good.

However, when it comes to being able to recover a stolen vehicle having a real time GPS tracking device is going to be a good idea. That way, when the criminal takes away your vehicle the police can have real time tracking information that will lead them right to your property. That way the criminal can be caught and your property can be returned to you. One of the major theft recovery GPS tracking devices is LoJack and it has been around for years. It is very effective at helping police find stolen property.

GPS Tracking Watches

Finally, the last tracking device that we should talk about are <link>GPS tracking watches</link>. A GPS watch is exactly what it sounds like – a watch that has all the functionality of a GPS device. When you take a look at it, there are two main types of GPS tracking watches and each type has a corresponding use. There are watches that act as data loggers and there are watches that act as real time trackers.

Garmin 405 GPS Tracking Watch

A data logger might be something like the Garmin Forerunner 405. This is a fitness GPS tracking watch that is the top of the line and has tons of really cool features. It is great for serious athletes who want to take their training to the next level and is even better for multi-sport athletes. When paired with a heart rate monitor it provides some of the best workout metrics of any device on the market. It is also a stereotypical example of what a data logging GPS tracking watch is good for. The device logs workout information like speed, altitude, direction, total time working out, and heart rate. This watch is just a data logger marketed toward runners and is the ultimate fitness tracking device.

GuardianLion LEO GPS Tracking Watch

A real time tracker might look something more like the GuardianLion Leo. This is a full featured GPS tracking device that fits on your wrist. It combines the best of cell phone technology with the power of GPS location data to create the ultimate safety device for kids and those suffering from Alzheimer’s. It allows parents or caretakers to have a real time knowledge about the location of their charge and even allows them to get into contact with that individual through the watch itself! This is extremely powerful technology and until recently these watches were so bulky as to be comical. Apparently, the GuardianLion Leo is small enough to fit comfortably on a writs and actually looks something like a normal watch.

The Future of Tracking Devices

The future is going to be portable, personal tracking devices. As we can already see with the GPS tracking watches and cell phones, the technology is making great strides toward becoming more and more consumer friendly. It is being packaged and delivered in a way that is very palatable for consumers and this means that tracking devices are going to be here for a very long time and in many different forms. If I had to put money on one become dominate it would have to be the cell phone, but the future is by no means certain. We will just have to wait and see what happens – but I know this for sure, GPS is going to be a big part of my childrens’ lives and an even bigger part of their childrens’ lives.