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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Smartphone GPS tracking considerations

Smartphone market share is driving forward, replacing standard flip phones at an increasing rate.  

Touted as the 'supercomputer' in our pockets - with GPS, and wireless Internet integrated into a single package, they would seem to be the tracking solution of choice.  

The Waze craze, and their subsequent high profile purchase by Google only seems to reinforce that perception.  However, there are still some issues with using smartphones as a tracking devices.  Here are a few items to consider:
  • Smartphone applications for tracking can be turned off by the user, or the phones can be turned off to defeat tracking.  No matter how ingenious the application, it can't provide any location information if it is turned off.  This applies to cell phone triangulation, or cell tower tracking by the wireless carriers if the phone is turned off.
  • Battery life is still a limitation.  With all of the various applications running on a phone, plus the battery drain of an active GPS and wireless interface (either WiFi or cellular), the battery drain on a portable phone can be extensive.  Charging the device while driving in the vehicle can help to extend the battery life, but the user may feel that they need to intervene from time to time to turn the application off in order to preserve the battery life - eliminating location data that may be critical to the fleet manager or monitoring entity.
  • Relevant vehicle IO may not be accessible from your phone.  Access to the vehicle's IO such as the ignition interface, or digital engine interface or for commercial vehicles IO like the VIN, mileage and PTO status, are not readily available to the phone.  This is generally the case - though this may change in the near future.
  • The GPS signal strength (and thus accuracy) may not be as good for some phones.  Mobile phones lack the strong grounding and shielding system that vehicles have, and GPS signal strength can suffer from the close proximity to the microprocessors and other wireless devices built into the phone - especially with regard to their close proximity to the GPS antenna.  GPS satellite signals are already 'buried' below the noise floor, so anything that increases the noise floor can impair it's operation; especially in areas with a limited view of the sky.
Using your smartphone for tracking yourself as you are walking, or biking, or in other outdoor sports such as skiing can still be advantageous - if well managed; but for vehicle tracking - embedded and dedicated devices continue to be a superior solution.  

Pricing for professional dedicated vehicle tracking devices is in the $100-$125 USD range, and tracking plans combined with low-end wireless plans can be in the range of $16.99-$19.99 USD a month - significantly lower cost than a smartphone wireless plan.  

Higher end dedicated tracking systems can also include additional IO features like the engine interface which can provide information about hours of service, as well as odometer readings that can help to suggest maintenance alerts for the vehicle.