What Is GPS Live Tracking?
When you’re in your vehicle and following the map on your Garmin or TomTom (or other GPS-equipped software), do you know how that software works? Or what legislation governs its use? Or how to determine the best unit for you?
Those are all very real questions—and questions we hope to help you answer. When it comes to GPS tracking and your car GPS tracker, there’s a lot of information out there, so much so that it can be disorienting and confusing. GPS Tracking Review is here to help answer those questions in a clean and clear way so you can find the best live GPS tracker for car, truck or personal asset protection!
What is GPS?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which is a universal satellite-based system based on latitude and longitude. Using GPS data allows for a moving object (such as a person or vehicle) to track its movements, including setting those movements against a map backdrop, either in real time (think of map software such as a car GPS tracker, for instance) or later (such as when analyzing a route taken after the fact). Nearly any map you might use digitally in your vehicle will utilize a live GPS tracker, or real time GPS tracker, to help display where you are relative to where you need to go; that’s true both of devices installed in your car (such as a Garmin or TomTom) or mapping software on your phone.
Who Discovered GPS?
That depends on who you ask. Officially the United States Department of Defense launched the GPS system for military use in 1973, with civilian use phased in in the 1980s. The full system became fully operational and freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver in 1995.
Beyond that, who deserves credit is a matter of some controversy. For years, Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson were considered the inventors, but in 2010 Roger Easton was given his due for a breakthrough that made the entire project possible: Fitting the satellite-based system around the atomic clock, which allowed for more precise locations.
Since then, however, another influential figure has come forward: Dr. Gladys West, who was only finally recognized for her contributions by the US Air Force—and was in fact inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her work—in 2018.
How Does the GPS Work?
Alright, are you ready for some fun physics? Here goes!
The GPS network has roughly 30 satellites in orbit at all times, at an altitude of 20,000 kilometers. Because there are so many satellites, and they’re at such a height, anywhere you go on Earth (with very rare exceptions, which we’ll get to…) you should have at least four GPS satellites visible. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to see the satellite, of course, but that if you could see that far, you would.
And the fact that you’re always in range of four GPS tracking satellites means that those satellites can send information to your GPS device—whether a car GPS tracker or handheld GPS tracking device—about how far away they are. More precisely, each satellite sends information about its position at regular intervals. Your device intercepts those information packets and calculates the time it took to receive that information, which travels at the speed of light. The GPS receiver in your device then can calculate how far away each satellite is based on the time it took for the message to travel from the satellite. And as long as your device gets that information from at least three of the four satellites, it can pinpoint your location using a process called trilateration.
So what’s trilateration? Think of a Venn diagram with three circles. Your device, which knows the distance to each satellite, can create a circle to represent the area that is that distance from satellite A. It can likewise create circles that represent the areas of the right distance from satellite B and satellite C, respectively. The point where all three of those circles intersect? That point is your location.
That’s an oversimplification in some senses—after all, the surface of the earth isn’t a flat plane, so instead of circles for each satellite, your GPS receiver maps spheres—but that’s the general idea of how your GPS tracking device works to determine your location.
As you can imagine, the more satellites there are above your location, the more accurate your car GPS tracker or other device can determine your location. Similarly, if you are in the mountains or thick woods, the sphere for each satellite may be less accurate, making your location tracking less accurate.
Further complicating things, there are three different ways that GPS devices can track location: Data loggers, data pushers, and data pullers.
Let’s look a little more closely at each type.
Types of GPS Trackers
- GPS Data loggers work by logging the position of the device regularly in their internal memory, whether a memory card, USB port, or internal flash memory card. That memory can sometimes be downloaded to a computer later, allowing for analysis of the track log data. Digital cameras or simple phone apps are both common examples of data loggers.
- Live GPS trackers or data pushers work by pushing (or sending) their location at regular intervals. They may also send related data, like the speed or altitude at which the device is moving, to a separate server. If you have a car GPS tracker, for instance, it likely utilizes a data pushing system. Many personal GPS tracking devices are also data pushers, including ankle bracelets used for individuals on house arrest, tracking devices used in races, vehicle trackers, devices for elder care, trackers for adventure sports and other sorts of remote adventures, or even collars used for animal tracking.
- Data pullers, which are sometimes also known as GPS transponders, are similar to data pushers, but instead of sending their position at regular intervals, they send their position only when queried or pulled. That can happen as often as needed, of course, and is most often used for items where the location only needs to be known occasionally. Many anti-theft devices, for instance, utilize data pulling, as they can be located when needed, but otherwise, don’t need to drain the battery or other power sources.
While most GPS tracking devices utilize data pushing, there are also instances in which devices can switch between types. For instance, many cars utilize data pushing for real time GPS trackers, but also may have anti-theft transponders that utilize data pulling. Many phones, for instance, can toggle between types of GPS to track location depending on service or user preference.
What Is a Real Time GPS Tracker?
So what is a real time GPS tracker and how does it work? The basic concept remains the same as we discussed above, which allows for live GPS tracking of vehicles and other items.
Models differ somewhat, but in most cases, real time GPS tracker software and hardware are designed to work in tandem so you or your company can readily both track and locate. For instance, let’s say you or your company utilize real time GPS tracker software and hardware to track company vehicles and driver performance. If so, odds are good the programs utilize both data pushing and data pulling.
For instance, many real time GPS tracking systems are set up to report every 10 minutes or so when the vehicle is in operation and moving, but only once an hour when the vehicle is off and the program is battery powered. This means that organizations utilizing real time GPS tracker programs can both monitor their drivers’ performance and locate vehicles at any time they need to do so. Similarly, this means that organizations can readily determine which driver might be closest to a location, making real time GPS trackers a great part of managing a delivery fleet, for instance.
How Real Time GPS Tracking Works
But how does real time GPS tracking work? The basic GPS system remains the same as we discussed earlier, making use of trilateration to determine location. In general, real time GPS tracking uses both data pushing and data pulling, depending on the power source available and how often the location of the object being tracked needs to be ascertained.
Real time GPS trackers are also sometimes known as active trackers, because they can be used to continually send and record location data. For instance, if you have a “Track My Phone” app, it likely uses real time GPS tracking to continuously monitor the location of your phone.
Similarly, because real time GPS tracking can continuously monitor the location of an object (such as a vehicle, for instance) it can be invaluable in security and is often used as an anti-theft strategy as a result.
Really, this ability to remote locate an asset or object within seconds cannot be undervalued. Not only is it great for security, but it can also be applied to child safety, managing delivery fleets, and more. The big difference between real time GPS tracking systems and passive GPS units is often a cellular data module, which allows the GPS unit to quickly transmit (or push) stored data to off-site servers; once the data is in the off-site servers, it can be recalled (or pulled) at any time and from anywhere utilizing an online platform. And because the online platform is web-based, it can generally be accessed from any smartphone, computer, or other device with an internet connection.
How Far Can a GPS Tracker Work?
The short answer? It varies. The longer answer? It depends on your software, your hardware, and your signal.
Remember when we talked about trilateration? There are lots of factors that contribute to how accurate each of those circles (or spheres, really) might be, each of which affects that intersection point.
Mountainous or otherwise topographically varied terrain, for instance, can interrupt satellite’s line of sight, so to speak, hindering the accuracy of the reading, as can dense forest. Similarly, if you only have three satellites available to you, rather than four, you no longer have the choice of which three to use in your trilateration, which also affects accuracy.
Similarly, some models of GPS tracker are simply better than others. That comes done to the software and hardware used as well as how frequently information is transferred between the device and the satellites on which it is relying for GPS location information.
If, for instance, you are using a free app on your phone, your GPS tracker is likely not going to be as accurate as if you’re paying for a top-notch real time GPS tracking system that utilizes both hardware in your vehicle and software in the form of a phone app.
And all of those factors contribute to the range of your GPS tracker. If you’re using a car GPS tracker that is a real time GPS tracker (or live GPS tracker), you’re likely to get what you pay for. Some systems have coast-to-coast coverage in the United States as long as you have cell coverage. Some systems will even allow you to upgrade to international plans. Other systems, however, may be more restricted in the area they will cover, meaning that if a vehicle is driven outside that service area, you might be out of luck.
So if you are considering paying for a live GPS tracker system, make sure you do your due diligence and understand what range it will cover—and if there are any hidden fees required to get that full coverage, for instance.
What Are Car Tracking Devices Used For?
The short answer? Car tracking devices allow you to always know where your car is.
The longer answer? Depending on the car GPS tracker device you use, that GPS tracking can help you determine whether or not the vehicle is being driven safely and efficiently.
For instance, if you are a parent, you can use tracking devices to keep track of where your kid might be driving as well as how safely they are driving, as some car GPS tracker devices will note when a vehicle is speeding or brakes aggressively, among other things.
Similarly, if you are a fleet manager, you can keep track of where your drivers are, and if a driver needs to be reassigned to a new location, for instance, you can note which driver is closest and send that driver. Similarly, you can use those driving statistics to track how safely your drivers are driving and help those drivers that need to improve get the training they need. Live GPS tracker programs can also help automatically determine mileages and the correlated reimbursements for accounting purposes, as well.
On the flip side, however, car GPS tracker devices have occasionally been used inappropriately, such as by stalkers. If you think that might be you, you can always try to locate any GPS trackers that might be hidden on your vehicle.
One last caveat when it comes to live GPS tracker devices: In order for real time GPS tracker programs to work, you have to have cell service for that real-time location data to remain current.
If you are interested in looking at a car GPS tracker for your family or your business, however, consider these 12 best live GPS tracker for car or truck (in alphabetical order).
Top 12 Best Live GPS Tracker For Car
- AES RGT90 GPS Tracker. While one of the more expensive options out there, it also comes with features including 90-day battery (assuming an hour of driving time each day), 6 months free tracking data, and 70-pound heavy duty magnets—as well as location accuracy within 2.5 meters.
- Amcrest AM-GL300 Real Time GPS Tracker. Small and easy to hide, this device offers the additional advantage of allowing you to set geographical bounds, meaning you get alerts if a vehicle is driven outside of that area. Same goes for speed, meaning you can set alerts if the car is driven faster than 60 mph. It utilizes 2G networks, however, meaning you should check coverage maps to ensure you’ll still get good service.
- CarLock Real Time Car Tracker and Alert System. While this system can utilize alerts tied to speed or geographical area, what really sets it apart is the alerts tied to vibrations, such as if a thief tries to use a power tool to break into your car. That makes it one of the most secure systems we’ve seen.
- Flashback GPS Tracker. A GPS data logger with long-lasting battery, simply put Flashback inside or underneath a vehicle and let is record driving activity every single second. When you want to review the travel history simply remove the GPS tracker from the vehicle and download data.With over 50 hours of recording time, Flashback is perfect for anyone seeking a high-quality no monthly fee GPS tracker.
- LandAirSea GPS 54. Easily the most popular real time GPS tracker on this list, the GPS 54 makes it easy to track any vehicle instantly. Simply place the mini live GPS tracker on an automobile with the help of the exterior magnetic mount then track the car from your iPhone, Android or computer.
- Logistimatics Mobile 200 GPS Tracker with Audio Monitoring. It could be a perk, or it could be creepy, but this device allows you to hear what’s going on in the vehicle. Simply text the device and it calls you with a one-way audio connection so you can hear everything in the vehicle.
- Optimus Tracker GPS Tracker. The app is really the key feature here, as you can set all sorts of alerts from the app that comes with the device. The device itself is easy to use, small (and easy to hide), and holds a charge for around 10 days.
- Optimus Tracker GPS Tracker with Magnet Case. While otherwise the same as option #5 above, this neat tracker comes with super heavy-duty magnets, making it great for mounting on the outside of the vehicle.
- Spy Tec STI GL300 Real Time Vehicle GPS Tracker. One of the best parts about this you get a device is that it’s tiny—only about eight ounces and three inches, with a battery span of roughly two weeks, if left uncharged between. It bundles with Google Maps for easy use, and is relatively inexpensive, too, at only $50.
- TKStar 90 Day GPS Tracker. The 90-day battery is a great selling point on its own, but this is also one of the cheaper top-of-the-line models out there. Simply text the device when you want to know where the vehicle is and it replies with Google Map coordinates.
- Trak4 Mobile GPS Tracker. Trak4 offers both a high-capacity battery (up to a year!) and comes in a weatherproof case, both of which are pretty great perks. That the accompanying software is easy to use is just a nice bonus, as is the 3G network set-up.
- Vyncs GPS Tracker. Vyncs offers one of the few devices without a monthly fee. Instead, you pay a $10 activation fee and then pay for the level of updates you want on a yearly subscription. It also is powered not by batteries, but directly from your vehicle.
Are GPS Trackers for Cars Legal?
The short answer when it comes to the question are GPS trackers for cars legal is it really depends.
The longer answer? Yes and no. If you’re placing a car GPS tracker on your own vehicle, for instance, that’s definitely legal. If you’re hiding a real time GPS tracker on your ex-girlfriend’s vehicle after she got a restraining order, however, that might be a big no-no.
The truth is, statutes vary from state-to-state, and because GPS trackers are still relatively new, the laws surrounding them aren’t always all that clear, either. There are a few standards, though, that might serve as a guide. Police, for instance, are not allowed to place a GPS tracker on a vehicle without a warrant expressly allowing a tracker on that specific vehicle. Private investigators have thus far mostly gotten away with using GPS tracker devices, but they also haven’t been expressly challenged on this, either, and privacy laws in some states could lead to lawsuits, for instance.
So if you do decide to invest in a real time GPS tracker, for instance, make sure you do your homework surrounding the laws that govern their use in your area.
If you do get the all clear, though, you’ll need to use an app to track that device. Check out what we think are the 10 best GPS tracking app (in alphabetical order).
10 Best GPS Tracking Apps
- FamiSafe GPS Location Tracker. FamiSafe offers location tracking, geofences (so you get alerts when out of safe areas), and exact real time GPS.
- Find My Friends. Simply add people you want to track to your friends’ list, and as long as they’ve also friended you, you can track their location.
- Flexispy Phone Tracker. Flexispy won’t just track current locations, but also past, allowing you to determine when and where your kids were previously.
- FollowMee GPS Tracker. FollowMee allows you to track multiple devices at the same time and records location data even when out of service.
- Glympse GPS Tracker. Though free, Glympse works off location sharing to keep you connected with the location of other phones and also offers iMessage and Apple Watch connectivity.
- HoverWatch. HoverWatch additionally utilizes Wi-Fi hotspots, so you’re not stuck with just GPS signals when keeping an eye on your kids.
- iKeyMonitor. Not only does iKeyMonitor track location, but it also records audio, meaning you can hear what’s going on in your kids’ lives.
- Mobistealth Mobile Tracker. Mobistealth adds latitude and longitude to your display, as well as offers full location histories.
- mSpy Phone Tracker. Not only can you get alerts when your kids enter or leave certain areas, but you can track routes as well.
- TheTruthSpy GPS Phone Tracker. Like Flexispy, TheTruthSpy tracks historical data as well as current data.
Where Would You Hide a Tracking Device on a Car?
Start by asking yourself if you should be hiding it. For one, while placing a tracking device on a car you own is legal, placing a device on a car you do not own may be illegal.
Secondly, consider that if you’re placing a tracking device on a vehicle driven by your child, it might be better to have an honest conversation with them first. Not that we want to offer parenting advice…but plenty of problems can generally be avoided in any sort of relationship if all parties involved are willing to speak with each other openly and honestly.
Finally, though, if you are still going to hide a tracking device on a car, consider places where the device will be secure. Some of the most common locations for hiding tracking devices, for instance, include inside wheel wells, inside any data ports, under or inside bumpers, in the liner of the spare tire compartment, under seats, or in the glove box or center console. For the most part, these devices are small, and as a result, rather easily hidden.
Do All GPS Trackers Need a Sim Card?
While many GPS trackers use SIM cards (live GPS trackers), they don’t have to—and there are quite a few trackers that don’t (GPS data loggers).
The biggest thing is that a GPS tracker needs a way to connect with a cellular network, and while that often includes a SIM card, it doesn’t need to if there are other technologies that allow the GPS tracker to send data via a mobile phone network, for instance. That might be radio technology or satellite modems, for instance. In most cases, though, cellular technology is how the data is shared.