Vehicle-installed GPS Tracking vs. Cell Phone-Based Tracking: Pros and Cons for Fleets

Service crew dashboard phone on car windshield

If you’re a business owner with 2 or more vehicles, you’re likely already aware of the reasons why you should use a GPS vehicle tracking system. Fleet tracking information can give you deep insights into driver behavior and vehicle whereabouts, help avoid costly and unexpected breakdowns, divert theft, increase driver safety and improve customer service—all of which affect your bottom line. 

But what kind of technology is most appropriate? You have two options:

  1. GPS tracking technology
  2. Cell phone tracking.

Vehicle tracking with a GPS tracking device

Vehicle GPS tracking includes systems where you place a GPS tracking device in your vehicles. 

GPS (Global Positioning System) is a satellite-based radio navigation system. There are currently 24 GPS satellites orbiting the planet every 12 hours. At any given time, a GPS device will be in the range of 6 to 8 of them, which can accurately provide the device’s position and location, narrowed down to within 5-10 metres in real-time. GPS devices don’t correspond with the satellites; rather, the satellites send a one-way signal. 

In order to provide accurate location data, a GPS device must be within range of at least 4 satellites. Using a technique called trilateration, 3 satellites work together to send a spherical radius signal to hone in on the GPS device’s location, and the fourth is used to confirm the data. 

Once plugged into your vehicle, the GPS tracking system works silently in the background to communicate its GPS coordinates over a 4G network. There’s no reliance on smartphones at all when using GPS vehicle tracking. Force Fleet Tracking is an example of a GPS tracking system.

Cell Phone Tracking

Cell phone tracking systems track the driver’s smartphone.  There is no GPS device in the vehicle—rather, the phone’s built-in GPS receiver is the device receiving the signals from the satellites Similarly to vehicle-installed GPS tracking systems, the more satellites a mobile device is within range of, the more accurate the GPS coordinates will be. Nowadays, most modern mobile phones have GPS capabilities built into the hardware; this makes it easy to use GPS-based applications like finding a lost phone or getting turn-by-turn directions in real-time. 

Should you wish to track drivers with cell phone tracking, however, each driver has to install an app on their smartphone. The cell phone’s data connection is then used to communicate the GPS coordinates.

These cell phone tracking systems might be sold as standalone apps, or they might be bundled in with other software your business already uses, such as field service management software or time tracking programs.

Vehicle-Installed GPS Tracking vs. Cell Phone Tracking: What’s the Difference?

While the two systems may sound similar, the big difference is what you’re actually tracking.

With vehicle-installed GPS tracking systems, you are tracking the vehicle, which is a valuable piece of company-owned equipment. With cell phone-based tracking, you’re tracking the person, whether they’re inside the vehicle or not. 

Pros and Cons of Vehicle-Installed GPS Tracking

With GPS tracking, the device is plugged into the vehicle’s OBD-II port, and setup is usually done through a web-based application. 

Although GPS tracking may be slightly more costly than cell phone tracking, it’s with good reason. Because the GPS device is installed into the vehicle, you are able to track more than just its location and get a robust suite of additional services to benefit your business beyond location tracking. Here are a few examples:

Vehicle Maintenance 

Unexpected breakdowns are costly and disruptive. When even one vehicle is down, it can affect the entire business’s operations until it’s back on the road. Depending on the brand you choose, a vehicle-installed GPS device can provide you with valuable vehicle health and maintenance information and alerts, remind you when vehicles are due for maintenance, and allow you to properly organize your maintenance program to avoid unexpected breakdowns. 

Driver Safety

Although smartphone tracking can provide some driver behavior insights, GPS trackers have the ability to give richer data into areas like harsh acceleration, speeding, cornering, excessive braking, and more. This can allow you to easily identify and coach employees with subpar driving habits.

Theft Deterrence

Because GPS tracking tracks the vehicle, not the person, it can give disturbance alerts like if a vehicle is bumped, towed, or even stolen. Once alerted, you can quickly check and track the vehicle’s location to alert the authorities.

Reduced Insurance Premiums

Some insurance companies will offer reduced premiums if a vehicle has a GPS tracking device installed, among other determining factors.

Save Money

GPS tracking allows you to get robust insights into your vehicle’s usage, allowing you to identify where costs could be cut. You may identify a vehicle with particularly high fuel usage, or discover an employee taking the scenic route between job sites. All these small efficiencies can eventually lead to big money saved down the road.

Pros and Cons of Cell Phone Tracking

Sure, cell phone tracking is easier and more cost-effective. But with cell phone tracking, you can’t always be sure that you’re tracking the right thing. Say an employee forgets his smartphone at work or at home, or the GPS permissions are turned off—this would lead to inaccurate data or no data at all for the day. No matter whether the phone is owned by your company or your employee, this method is also likely to raise privacy concerns and may not be well-received by your drivers. Drivers have to opt in to be tracked and give explicit permission. There may also be legal barriers —see our summary of the laws around employee tracking in the USA.

Vehicle vs Cell Phone GPS Tracking: Which is Better for your Business? 

Check out the table below to learn about the difference between the two. 

ComparisonGPS Tracking with a Vehicle-Installed DeviceCell Phone-based Tracking
Hardware4G GPS devices that plug into the OBD-II port of your vehiclesNone (just employees’ cell phones)
What you’re trackingTracking the vehicleTracking the employee
PrivacyNo privacy concerns: you’re tracking the vehicle, a business asset that you own and operate.Employees could have privacy concerns about the employer tracking their personal phone. 
Ease of setupNo action is required from employees. Business owner simply plugs GPS device into the vehicle’s OBD-II port.Requires each employee to opt in to tracking.
TamperingYou get an instant alert if the GPS device is tampered with or removed from the vehicle.Tracking can only occur when the employee’s phone is on and the app has GPS permissions. 
BatteryGPS devices are powered by the vehicle and include wireless connectivity — without depending on any cell phones.Tracking depends on the employee’s cell phone being charged. 
Driver safetyStrong driver safety features are available. For example, with Force Fleet Tracking, each trip is given a RoadScore based on safe or unsafe driving behaviors.Depends on the service; features may not be as rich.
Vehicle healthGet a wide range of vehicle health information including engine codes, recalls, and critical battery or fuel level alerts.No vehicle health information.
Vehicle securityGet instant alerts if any of your vehicles are bumped, towed, stolen, etc.No vehicle security information.
Legal considerationsNo legal complications when tracking company-owned vehicles. Legal considerations depend on the state; may require written permission from the employee. 
CostForce Fleet Tracking doesn’t charge extra for hardware — it’s just $20/month per vehicle, including everythingPricing depends on service.

Make an Informed Decision on Vehicle Tracking

Cell phone-based tracking is inexpensive, convenient, and easy to set up. It’s great for families, consumers or other types of applications where employee privacy is not a consideration. 

But as you can see in the chart above, cell phone-based tracking has some big drawbacks for business owners and their employees. 

Our strong recommendation for business owners who depend on their vehicles is to use a system with vehicle-installed GPS devices. Even if you’re getting smartphone-based GPS tracking for free as part of another product you’ve subscribed to, it’s still worth the upgrade to begin tracking your vehicles, not your people.

Force Fleet Tracking is surprisingly affordable at just $20/month per vehicle — and those all-important GPS devices are included at no extra cost!

Start a free trial or request a demo to experience Force for yourself and determine if it’s right for your business. 

Published February 19, 2021
Joni Taisey
Joni Taisey
Growth Marketing Manager
Force Fleet Tracking