How Does a GPS Tracker Work?

What is GPS Tracking?

What is a GPS Tracker

GPS stands for Global Positioning System and is used by various devices to determine their exact location around the world. The GPS Network consists of 24 satellites that communicate with these devices, sending their location information through. These devices use that information to track their exact location, speed and direction.

The GPS Network was originally discussed in 1973 for use in military operations. It was called the Defence Navigation Satellite System (DNSS). The DNSS program was led by American physicist Roger L. Easton, who invented, designed and patented GPS as part of the program.

DNSS was later re-named to the Navstar-GPS Program and by 1995 all satellites had been launched and the program was operational.

While GPS was originally developed for military use it became available for the public, thanks to President Ronald Reagan and later Bill Clinton.

Now, GPS is used every day by billions across the globe.

From the aviation industry through to agriculture.

How Does a GPS Tracker Work?

A GPS Tracker is a device that uses the GPS Network to determine its exact location, speed and direction. The tracking device uses a process called trilateration to determine its location based on its distance from 3 GPS Satellites, with a fourth satellite to confirm.

This technology is used by your mobile phone, Google Maps, weather apps, aeroplanes, ships and more.

A car tracking device works by contacting the GPS Network every few seconds to receive updated location, speed and direction data. It then uses a SIM Card to send this data to our servers through the 3G network. When the data arrives it’s displayed visually through Google Maps, all you need to do is log into the app.

Because the data is captured every few seconds, we can build an accurate map of where your vehicle has been and the speeds it was going. We capture much more data than location and speed (such as fuel tracking, tow alerts, aggressive driving alerts) but this is built into our trackers themselves, and doesn’t have anything to do with GPS.

What Can a Car Tracker Do?

Vehicle trackers can do a lot more than just track vehicles!

From fuel tracking to tow and crash alerts, there’s a lot packed into these small devices. In fact there’s so much I could go on about here it would take a whole another article!

Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Speeding Alerts
  • Geofences
  • Tow Alerts
  • Crash Alerts
  • Fuel Tracking
  • Jaming Alerts
  • History & Reporting
  • Aggressive Driving Alerts
  • Out of Range Logging
  • Plus more…

In the coming months we’ll be releasing an entire series of articles discussing all the alerts and features available. Keep an eye out!

What does a gps tracker look like

What Does a GPS Tracker Look Like?

As there are many different types of GPS Trackers, they come in different shapes and sizes.

The 3 main types of vehicle trackers are:

  • Battery powered
  • OBD-II
  • Hardwired

A battery powered unit is usually around 10cm x 10cm (4″ x 4″). They’re on the bigger side because device needs to house the battery and the battery needs to be big enough to last 6-8 weeks between charges. You don’t want to be charging it every couple weeks, it becomes tedious quick.

An OBD-II tracker will be around 5cm x 5cm (2″ x 2″) and plugs into the OBD-II port of your car. All vehicles built after 1996 will have one of these ports. It lets you connect to your vehicles computer to read the information it produces and is often used by mechanics to see if your car has had an errors. The beauty of these devices is their quite small because there’s no battery as it uses your cars battery.

Hardwired trackers are quite variable in size and can go from as small as an OBD tracker to larger than a battery powered device. It depends on the features of the device itself. Like an OBD tracker, a hardwired device uses the vehicles battery to operate. So, if it’s a very simple tracker that only records your location and speeds it can be very small. Yet, if it has the capabilities for vehicle immobilisation, fuel tracking etc, it can get much larger as it needs to house all these extra features.

Where Can I Buy a Car Tracking Device?

There are many places to buy a vehicle tracker, although you’ll have a lot more luck looking online rather than a retail store.

HINT: We sell a pretty incredible little device over here.

Now, we often get asked about the trackers selling on Amazon and Ebay. They’re usually really cheap, and advertise no monthly costs. But don’t be fooled, there’s a number of reasons to avoid these.

Firstly, there’s always going to be monthly costs involved. Every car tracker uses a SIM Card (the same used in your mobile phone) to transmit the GPS information to the companies servers.

When they advertise ‘no monthly costs’, it means they won’t charge you a monthly fee. Which actually means you’ll need to go out, buy a SIM Card and make sure you keep the data topped up every month.

Secondly, it’s a cheap service and you’re not paying them monthly, therefore there’s no incentive for them to provide you with good tracking software. They’ll often use third-party software that’s slow, lags and lacks reporting features. Once you’ve bought the device, that’s it, you’ve paid them, and they don’t care about following up with a good service. They’ve got their money and they’re happy.

This leads onto the next point – if you run into any problems, you’re on your own. You’ll be lucky to receive a response to your emails, if you get any support at all. And with those cheaper, Chinese devices, you’re sure to run into some troubles.

Finally, we come to the devices themselves. They’re usually not terrible, but often lack in features and aren’t very accurate. What’s more, it can be quite hit and miss as to whether you receive a device that actually works. In our testing we purchased several of the same tracker from the same buyers, and often we’d have a device that didn’t function correctly.

So, if you’re willing to go through a whole lot of hassle and frustration to save some cash, by all means, go for it.

But we find our customers are very happy paying just 10.99€/month to know that we’ve got everything handled for them, and are always here to help out.

How Accurate is Car Tracking?

GPS Tracking is accurate to within three meters (usually closer). The technology has developed to provide strong signals worldwide, however, there are factors that can have an affect on this.

GPS accuracy is affected if there isn’t a clear line of site to the sky; such as in tunnels, garages, large cities, and even some valleys.

Luckily, it’s not affected by bad weather at all.

Something else to note are cheap tracking devices.

Inferior quality devices (those from Amazon and Ebay) are made of cheap components and receivers, which often affects the reliability of the GPS signal.

The accuracy can be good, but the signal will keep dropping out leading to missing location data.

How accurate is car tracking

How Reliable is Car Tracking?

Will the GPS signal often cut out and not report anything?

Sometimes, and it doesn’t have anything to do with GPS at all.

As mentioned earlier, Car Trackers use a SIM Card and the 3G network to send the GPS Data from the device to the servers. They are therefore reliant on being in an area with mobile reception.

If there’s no mobile reception, the tracker can’t transfer the data to the server and you can’t track your vehicle.

However, as a work-around to this, we’ve installed SD Memory Cards in all of our devices.

That means that if you’re outside reception, our trackers will log the location, speed and distance data to their memory cards. When you’re back in reception that data will automatically get sent to the servers and you can view all of your tracking data.

Battery Powered vs. OBD-II vs. Hardwired Car Trackers

As mentioned earlier, there are three main types of vehicle trackers: Battery Powered, OBD-II and Hardwired.

Battery Powered Trackers

As the name suggests, Battery Powered Trackers contain an internal battery. They’re sometimes called Portable Car Trackers as they don’t need to be connected to the vehicle in any way.

This makes the device very easy to hide. However, you’ll also need to remove it from your vehicle to charge whenever it runs low on battery. This can become quite tedious, especially if the battery charge deteriorates and your left charging it every two weeks.

Finally, these types of devices are usually quite limited on features. This is because they don’t connect to your vehicle and therefore can’t get as many readings or data. They’re usually limited to tracking location, speed and geofencing.

OBD-II Trackers

OBD-II Trackers may sound complex, but they’re actually the simplest of the lot. These devices plug into the OBD-II port of your vehicle, usually located under the steering wheel.

Most vehicles built after 1996 will have an OBD-II port, but if you’re not sure you can plug the model and make of your car into this tool here. It will tell you if you’re vehicle has an OBD-II port and where it’s located.

Once you’ve plugged it in, all you need to do is login to the tracking app. The tracking device runs off the vehicles battery so you never need to mess with it (and don’t worry, it’s not powerful enough to drain your battery).

These devices can come with a lot of useful features, including:

  • Fuel Tracking
  • Tow Alerts
  • Crash Alerts
  • Aggressive Driving Alerts
  • Jamming Alerts
  • Unplug Alerts and more..

The beauty of these devices is their simplicity.

All you need to do is plug it into your car.

No messing with wires, no need to charge it, no worries.

Hardwired Trackers

Finally, we’ve got Hardwired Car Trackers. These devices are wired directly to your vehicles battery itself.

The good thing about these devices is they often come with a whole host of security features that are simply not available with Battery Powered or OBD-II Trackers.

Some of these security features are quite amazing.

For instance, some hardwired devices can come with vehicle immobilisation. If you receive an alert that your vehicle has been stolen you can simply login to the app and immobilise the vehicle right then and there.

They can also come with Door Alerts. If your vehicles doors are forced unlocked you’ll receive an alert straight to your phone.

However, as you can imagine these added security features come with a heftier price tag.

Not only are the devices more expensive, with a higher monthly cost, but you’ll have to get an auto-electrician to install them. This can rack up quite a large bill quite quickly.

For most small business owners and individuals we recommend choosing an OBD-II Tracker. They’re simple to use and come with a wide variety of alerts.

Hardwired vehicle trackers

Can GPS Trackers Be Blocked?

Yes, ​there are many devices that can easily be purchased online to block car trackers. It works by blocking the signal from the tracker to the servers, so it never sends the location data through.

These devices can be as cheap as $30, and get as expensive as $800 and more.

Luckily, some trackers (including ours!) have a jamming detection feature. As soon as the signal is blocked you’ll receive a notification straight to your mobile phone.

And if someone tries to get clever and unplugs the tracker, you’ll receive an instant alert.

How to Tell If Your Car is Being Tracked?

With car trackers becoming more and more prevalent many people want to know how to tell if your car is being tracked.

Luckily, with the rise of GPS Trackers we also saw a rise in GPS Detectors which  can be found on Amazon, Ebay and many other retailers for rather cheap.

All you need to do is walk around your vehicle with the GPS Detector and hold it close to any areas you may suspect a GPS Tracker present. The device will emit a noise or vibration if it detects any GPS signals.

Another method to find a tracker on your car is to perform a physical inspection. We’ll cover where GPS tracking devices are placed on cars in the next section.

If you don’t discover anything during your physical inspection but are still bothered by the possibility of a vehicle tracker, seek professional help. Take your vehicle to an auto-electrician or vehicle security expert and they’ll be able to provide a thorough examination of your vehicle.

How to Locate a Car Tracker?

If the GPS Detector from the tip above didn’t work a physical inspection of the car may be required. Often times car trackers come with small magnets so they can easily be attached to the undercarriage of your vehicle.

You’ll need a flash light and, if possible, a small mirror. Start by checking all the wheel wells, use your fingers and hands to reach into areas you can’t see.

Next go around the entire vehicle checking the undercarriage as well as the bumper. This is where the flashlight and mirror come in handy. Again, make sure you use your hands to feel around for anything out of place.

After that lift your hood and have a look around. Are there any unusual devices stuck around the battery, behind the radiator etc. It’s not very likely you’ll find a tracker here, as the high temperatures affect and can destroy the electronics. Nevertheless, it’s worth a look.

Finally, you want to check the interior of your car. Check in the trunk (particularly in the spare wheel well), check in the seats, check under the seats, and check that there’s nothing plugged into your OBD-II port.

Beyond that, you’ll have to take your car to a vehicle security expert to have it checked out.

Where do you Install a GPS Tracking Device in a Car?

Again, this is dependent on the type of tracker you have.

For an OBD-II Tracker, you’ll simply plug it into the OBD-II port of your vehicle, usually found under the steering wheel.

For a Battery Powered Tracker, you can place them anywhere as they aren’t connected to the vehicle at all. It can even be squeezed into the back seats of your vehicle!

Now comes the Hardwired Tracker, this is the tricky one. The absolute basics of installing a hardwired device comes down to three wires; a positive, a negative and a grounding wire. These need to be connected for the device to work.

However, some hardwired devices come with additional features that require additional wiring. This will require an auto-electrician’s help.

Because this is a complex topic, we’ll be releasing a separate guide dedicated to installing car trackers.

Where do you install a GPS Tracking device in a car

Have you got questions I didn’t answer?

I hope I was able to ease you into the world of GPS Tracking without getting too complicated.

However, if I didn’t cover a specific question or skimped over the details please let me know. Just send me a quick message on my contact page here.

I read every email I receive and if you put forward a good question I’ll be sure to add it in.