How Does GPS Tracking Work? [A Business Owner’s Guide]

Delivery truck crossing a bridge

Managing a fleet is a big responsibility. As a business owner and fleet manager, you’re well aware of the struggles that come with the job. You need to schedule pick ups and deliveries, provide accurate arrival times to customers, and track vehicle location and driver behavior, all while reducing fuel and maintenance costs — and everything in between.

Using GPS tracking tools can dramatically improve your fleet management and assist with productivity, cost-savings, and job efficiency. In this blog we’ll discuss GPS in detail, how it works, and the best way to incorporate it into your fleet management practices.

Let’s start with the basics:

What is GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. it’s a satellite-based radio navigation system that provides positioning, navigational, and timing services to users through their smartphone or navigation device. Impressively, GPS can pinpoint a device’s location down to 5-10 meters of its true location on earth in real-time. The powerful technology is owned by the United States government and operated by the U.S. Space Force and the Department of Defense. 

How does GPS tracking work?

GPS satellites broadcast one-way navigational signals towards earth. These GPS satellite signals contain accurate timestamps from an atomic clock that’s onboard each satellite. These signals are received by cell phones or vehicle navigation systems and the timestamps determine the device’s distance from the satellite, thus pinpointing its exact location on earth.

A constellation of 24 GPS satellites orbit the planet every 11 hours and 58 minutes. Why so many? Most GPS devices will be in the range of six to eight satellites at any given time. In order for the technology to work properly, a GPS device needs to be in range of at least four of these 24 satellites to allow enough data for triangulation.

There are three GPS segments that work together for this technology to work:

  1. Space segment
  2. Control segment
  3. User segment

The space segment includes the satellites (a.k.a. the Global Navigation Satellite System  or GNSS) that transmit radio signals to GPS devices on earth. 

The control segment includes ground stations around the world that track, monitor, and manage the satellites. 

The user segment represents the devices on earth (such as smartphones or navigation systems in vehicles) that receive the satellite signals and allow for location calculations and tracking to take place.

A common misconception is that GPS satellites and navigational devices correspond with each other. In reality, these devices just receive a one-way signal from the satellites.

How does GPS work without internet?

Since GPS is made possible through satellites and modulated radio waves, it doesn’t need an internet connection (or cellular data) to work. The location of a GPS device, like your cell phone, can still be determined, then displayed on a preloaded map in real-time. 

If a user is looking for information like traffic, construction, or route updates, having an internet connection or access to cellular data is required. That’s why if your driver is out of data on their phone they can load up a route on their cell phone before they leave, but if they take a wrong turn, they’ll need to find wi-fi to update the route map.  

What does a GPS tracker show?

A GPS tracker will show the device’s location on a preloaded map. This will often be displayed on the device’s screen or, in the case of GPS fleet tracking, accessed from your own computer or mobile device. 

Now that we have an understanding of GPS, how it works, and what it shows, let’s discuss how it can be used to effectively manage your fleet:

Using GPS to manage your business vehicles

Implementing a GPS tracking system to manage your fleet not only increases driver accountability and arrival time accuracy but it also helps reduce fuel and maintenance costs.

There are some state laws to consider when working with GPS tracking and employees; but simply tracking company vehicles is good-to-go. Start by looking for a GPS tracking tool that’s designed specifically for small businesses and offers the following benefits and features:

1. Accurately track fleet vehicles

Tracking business vehicle fleets without the use of GPS technology is a risky game. With no tracking system in place, companies are forced to place a lot of trust in their drivers. When operators log their routes manually, there’s a large margin for error. Driving hours and distances are often estimated; trip details are vague, illegible or completely excluded; and this information can easily get lost, should they be logged on paper documents.

When business owners use GPS tracking systems to track their fleet, they’re able to get real-time data on vehicle location, which helps with arrival estimates and driver accountability. Advanced fleet tracking systems allow you to set up geo-fencing and custom alerts that notify you when a vehicle is taken out of predetermined locations — a feature that’s helpful for identifying drivers who are taking questionable liberties. 

Having a detailed, digital record of vehicle locations and routes keeps drivers accountable for where they take company vehicles. This data helps you communicate accurate arrival times to customers and eliminate disputes if customers complain that drivers never showed up. With fleet vehicle GPS tracking, you can confirm this information by referencing the record of the vehicle’s whereabouts and routes taken that day.

Pro tip: Look for fleet management software that includes a multi-vehicle view on the tracking system. That way, you can see all of your vehicles on one map.

2. Collect driver behavior data

Further than driver accountability, GPS tracking systems that are made specifically for business owners should monitor driver behavior. Through GPS receivers in fleet vehicles, valuable driver behavior information can be collected and used for better driver management. Information such as:

  • Harsh braking
  • Cornering
  • Time spent traveling over the posted speed limit

This information can be used to help with onboarding and training, correcting and adjusting behavior, or termination, if necessary. It can also be used to reward good behavior and enforce penalties for poor behavior.

Not only does driver data keep operators safe but it also protects company vehicles and others on the road. Many fleet tracking services will collect driver behavior data and present it in an organized report for company owners or fleet managers to analyze and understand.

3. Reduce fuel costs

Before GPS tracking, there was no way for owners to know exactly why their business fuel costs were stacking up. Estimates could be made when analyzing driver logs, gas prices, and route plans but getting an accurate understanding of costs was nearly impossible.

With fleet vehicle GPS trackers, you can collect data on routes, idle times, and stop durations. With geo-fencing you can also see when fleet vehicles are entering or exiting certain locations — such as out of the city or state — in real-time.  For example, if a driver is taking a longer route to get to a destination, the GPS tracker will clearly show this and you can instruct the driver to take a more optimized route for better fuel efficiency. Or, if a driver is idling the vehicle through their lunch break, this can also be flagged to managers for correction.

Understanding how fleet vehicles are being used can help small companies reduce fuel costs and save money.  

4. Reduce maintenance costs

In addition to saving on fuel costs, small businesses can increase their savings on maintenance costs. Most GPS tracking systems for fleets monitor vehicle health so you can better anticipate maintenance needs and schedule preventative maintenance. 

Vehicle health information that can be collected through fleet GPS tracking systems include:

  • DTC codes
  • Recalls
  • Battery health

A good fleet vehicle GPS tracker will be able to decode any DTC codes and explain them in plain English for you to better understand and address. They’ll also notify managers of any manufacturer recalls as soon as they happen so there’s no need to manually look up this information or wait until it’s too late and something goes wrong. Battery health is also monitored to ensure no fleet vehicle ever suffers costly downtime due to a preventable battery issue.

Beyond maintenance, GPS services can also be useful should a vehicle ever require roadside assistance. The device can display to a driver their exact location, which they can then relay to the technician coming to their aid. 

Fleet GPS tracking for small businesses

Force Fleet Tracking is a GPS fleet tracking system that helps small businesses control costs, hold drivers accountable, and keep vehicles safe. Get accurate fleet vehicle tracking with multi-vehicle views on a map and valuable driver behavior and vehicle health data in real time.

Force Fleet Tracking offers a free 14-day trial for small businesses acrosdos the United States to see how our GPS tracking system can help with your fleet management. We’ll ship the tracking devices to you, free of charge. It only takes 10 minutes to install and set up. Use Force to start tracking your fleet with GPS technology today.

Published March 8, 2021
Matt Davis
Matt Davis
Director of Marketing
Force Fleet Tracking