If your car gets stolen, a GPS tracker could make the difference between getting it back in one piece and losing it for good. These handy devices ensure you know where your vehicle is at all times.
GPS technology has been available to the public for decades, but GPS trackers have grown in popularity more recently. In this guide, we’re going to explore:
- How GPS tracking works
- Tracking your personal vehicle
- Using GPS for professional fleet management
- Tracking with a smartphone vs. a dedicated GPS device
- How to install a GPS tracker on your car
- Best GPS trackers for vehicles
By the time we’re finished, you’ll have a solid grasp of how GPS works and how to use it to track and secure your vehicles. Let’s get started.
How does GPS tracking work?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a network of more than 30 satellites that orbit the Earth, constantly transmitting the time and their location. GPS receivers can pick up these signals, and any time a receiver is in range of four or more satellites, the GPS uses some advanced geometry to get a reliable estimate of that receiver’s location, positioning, and even speed.
GPS receivers come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and styles. Mobile apps like Google Maps use them to help you find the best route. Smartwatches use them for things like measuring how far you ran, elevation changes, and where you went. And some receivers help you monitor the location of your personal property, such as a car.
The thing to keep in mind about using GPS tracking on a vehicle is that some things can interfere with GPS and decrease its accuracy. While it works anywhere in the world, at least four satellites need line-of-sight to your GPS receiver. So things like buildings, mountains, and even trees can block, delay, or even reflect GPS signals, which causes your receiver to give an inaccurate reading. (This is why your map app sometimes gets confused about where you are.)
So if the car you’re monitoring is in a parking garage or tunnel, the GPS tracker may not work at all until the vehicle leaves the area. And in dense urban areas, you probably shouldn’t expect it to provide your car’s exact location. Under ideal conditions, GPS can accurately estimate your location within 7.8 meters. As your conditions become less ideal, the location becomes less accurate.
Geofencing: how to tell if your car goes somewhere it shouldn’t
Geofencing is an innovative GPS-related feature that lets you create a “virtual fence” around an area. If your receiver has this functionality, then you simply define the area you want your vehicle to stay (such as your driveway, parking lot, company campus, or an assigned route), and when the device leaves the designated area, it sends a notification to your mobile device or computer.
Not all GPS devices have this feature, but it makes the difference between learning about grand theft auto or misuse of a company vehicle in-the-moment and learning about it after-the-fact. Some devices can be set to notify the police, so you can ensure a fast response to theft. For companies, this can also help you correct driver errors or misuse of company property before it becomes a major problem.
Passive vs. active GPS trackers
A lot of modern GPS trackers periodically transmit location data so that you can track them in real-time. These are called active GPS trackers, and they’re ideal for personal or professional use.
But some GPS trackers simply record that information. They don’t transmit, and you have to physically access the device to retrieve the data. These are passive GPS trackers. Since they don’t allow you to track in real-time, you probably want to avoid these. They’re more useful for spying than protecting property. (Since they don’t transmit a signal, they’re harder to detect with counter-surveillance devices.)
As you’re shopping around for GPS trackers, you aren’t going to find them neatly labeled “active GPS trackers” and “passive GPS trackers,” and in most cases, the ones you find are going to be active. Just be sure to pay attention to whether or not the device you’re looking at transmits location data.
Now let’s look at a couple of differences between tracking personal vehicles and tracking company vehicles.
Tracking your personal vehicle
The main thing to keep in mind with tracking your car is that if someone steals your car, you don’t want them to see your GPS tracker—they’ll toss it out the window! That means you need to choose a tracker that’s discreet. Obviously. it should be small, but you also want one that doesn’t have to plug into your car charger.
You could hide one somewhere inside your vehicle, such as your glove compartment . . . but a thief may look around inside your car for things to steal, so there’s always a chance your tracker would be discovered.
Your best bet is to get a GPS tracker or GPS tracker case you can mount underneath your vehicle with magnets. Our best-selling GPS tracker has a couple options for magnetic GPS cases. You can get a simple waterproof case, or you can get a case with an extended battery.
If you’re getting a GPS tracker that doesn’t plug into your car charger, it’s important to pay attention to battery life. You don’t want to have to crawl under your car every day to replace the battery or charge your device!
GPS trackers don’t usually transmit constantly. The more frequently your device transmits location data, the more useful it is for mapping activity, but the shorter its battery will last. Typically GPS trackers will stay in “standby mode” until there’s movement you need to track, which saves battery. And of course, “passive” GPS trackers don’t transmit location data at all, so their batteries may last longer.
A good GPS tracker should have enough battery life to last several days or even a couple weeks. With an added battery pack, you can increase the battery life to several months. Just keep in mind that whatever the battery life is, that’s how often you’ll need to access the device.
Pro tip: With the right adapter and a little know-how, you can connect some GPS trackers directly to your car battery, so you can stash it under the hood, and you never have to worry about battery life.
Tracking company vehicles (fleet management)
When it comes to using a GPS tracker on company vehicles, discretion probably isn’t as important. Your employees know it’d look suspicious if they mess with your GPS tracker, and they could face consequences for doing so. Additionally, having a tracker in plain sight may help employees hold themselves accountable. They’ll be reminded that you’re monitoring where they go, what route they take, or how long they stay in a given location.
The advantage of not needing to hide your GPS tracker is that you can get one that’s either hardwired to the vehicle’s battery or plugs into the car charger, which means you never have to worry about running out of battery.
If the primary purpose of your GPS tracker is for security, though, you may want one you can conceal beneath the car, just as you would to track your personal vehicle.
For tracking company vehicles (part of what’s known as fleet management), features like geofencing become a lot more important. You want a GPS tracker that sends email or text message alerts when the device leaves a predetermined area, so you can quickly correct the issue in real-time. Whether your vehicles are restricted to your campus, a specific route, or you simply want to know when they’re in use, geofencing tells you when there’s something to see.
Can you use a smartphone to track your car with GPS?
It might surprise you to learn that you can use a smartphone to track your car. Most mobile devices support GPS capabilities, and with the right app, you can see your phone’s GPS location from an independent device (like a computer or another smartphone).
But there are several reasons why you probably don’t want to do this. First of all, you have to leave the mobile device in the vehicle you want to track. So you probably don’t want to do this with your primary mobile device—and if you’re going to buy a mobile device and give it a data plan just to use it as a GPS tracker, you’re definitely better off buying a GPS tracker.
Not to mention, a mobile device is harder to conceal. You can’t stash it somewhere using magnets—magnets interfere with the compass on mobile devices, throwing off your GPS functionality. And since smartphones are desirable items to steal and people tend to panic when they lose them, you probably don’t want it out in the open, plugged into your car charger.
Most importantly, though, most mobile devices have very little battery life, especially if they’re in use. And in order to use your smartphone as a GPS tracker, your GPS tracking app will need to be open—constantly using data and draining the battery. Even if you have a portable battery, your phone can plug into, your battery won’t last long—certainly not weeks or months, like a dedicated GPS tracker.
So you certainly can use a GPS tracking app. But should you? Not if you want it to protect your vehicle, you need your phone for anything else, or you don’t want to keep charging it.
How to install a GPS tracker on your vehicle
We’ve already covered some of this, but how you install a GPS tracker depends on the device you choose and the way you intend to use it. Some GPS trackers are battery powered, but others come with adapters to plug into your car charger or hardwire to your battery.
Other trackers may connect directly to the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic port (ODP), which is usually located beneath the steering wheel, or in one of the following locations:
For tracking your personal vehicle, we recommend using a magnetic case to install a GPS tracker underneath your vehicle (or under the hood), where a potential thief will have a hard time finding it.
Best GPS for tracking vehicles
At SpyTecGPS, we have several GPS trackers that work great for tracking vehicles. But the GL300MA is by far the most versatile and highly sought-after model. It has an average rating of 4.7 stars with more than 1,200 reviews. It’s just three inches tall, so it’s easy to conceal, and its default battery life is 2.5 weeks. You can set up geofencing and receive alerts via email or text message, and then monitor in real time. And you can store your tracking data for a whole year for free.
Plus, there are plenty of accessories to mount it under your vehicle, hardwire it to your battery, and extend the battery life to up to six months! At $49.95, you’ll have a hard time finding more affordable GPS trackers with this kind of functionality.
Our customers rely on this device for personal and commercial applications across a wide range of industries, including:
- Construction companies
- Maid/Cleaning services
- A/C repair
- Moving companies
- Lawn services
Businesses with truck fleets, company cars, or specialized vehicles use this device to ensure their vehicles are always where they’re supposed to be, and with real-time tracking and mobile and email alerts, they can swiftly correct any misuse of company property.
We also offer the GL 300MA in a three-pack at a slight discount, so businesses can get one for every vehicle in their fleet.
Buy the GL 300MA GPS tracker today.