How vehicle tracking evolved to what we know today

DaveConsumer, IoT, SME

image of vehicle tracking on phone

What is vehicle tracking?

Vehicle tracking has been around for a long time but as often happens with really useful technologies, vehicle tracking was made possible by bringing together two existing capabilities. The first was the Global Positioning System (GPS), the second was the mass deployment of cellular telephony. Even so, it took four decades for those two technologies to get to a point where vehicle tracking became a commercial reality.

A child of the Space Race

GPS was a child of the ‘space race’ between the USA and the USSR. Following the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik in 1957, researchers noticed that the frequency of signals coming from the satellite to a fixed point on the ground increased as it approached over the horizon and decreased as it moved away. This is called Doppler Shift and showed that if a satellite location could be determined from the ground via the frequency shift of its radio signal, then the location of a receiver on the ground could also be determined by its distance from a satellite. The accuracy of the ground location could be improved if signals from two or more satellites could be received and this led to the development of ‘Transit’, a constellation of 36 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched in the 1960s and operated by the US Navy for the purpose of submarine warfare.

The introduction of Navstar

In the 1970s the US military set about developing a more advanced satellite tracking system called ‘Navstar’ that would allow all ground based vehicles and aircraft to know their position more accurately. Navstar satellites were an improvement over Transit, enhanced by the use of on-board atomic clocks, allowing greater accuracy. The first launch took place in 1989 and by 1995 27 satellites had been launched, 24 active with 3 reserved as spares when orbit adjustments were being made to the others. The orbits of the GPS system are such that 4 satellites are always visible from any place on the earth. In 1989 the first hand- held GPS navigation devices came onto the market in the USA. At first the accuracy of the system for civilian use was deliberately curtailed until 2000 when the US Government allowed a higher level of accuracy. This led to a rapid increase in the use of GPS by industries such as logistics, forestry, and fishing.

The falling cost of chipsets

In 1990 the cost of a chip to receive a GPS signal was between $30 and $50, with a few hundred thousand being sold in that year. By 2010 that had fallen to less than $1 with hundreds of millions being sold each year for use in phones, cars, trucks and other devices. But GPS only gives us half of what is needed for a vehicle tracking system. Knowing your location is not the same thing as knowing the location of other people and other vehicles or things. To do that you need to be able to transmit the GPS data to a remote device. In the early days of GPS the only way to do that was via a land line or using another satellite. A land line was no help of course as by definition the GPS receiver spent a lot of time on the move, while using another satellite connection to transmit the data was too expensive for most applications. This is where the second enabling technology for vehicle tracking came into play, mobile telephony.

The arrival of mobile packet switched data

The early mobile phone networks got started at around the same time as Navstar was being conceived, but these networks were not much help in terms of transmitting data. Sometimes called 1G, these were analogue systems designed only for voice. The first 2G (GSM) was launched in Finland in 1991 and was the first iteration of digital mobile telephony. Although 2G could support circuit switched data services it was only when a development of the 2G standards allowed the first packet switched data services to be offered. That was when data over mobile phone networks really got started. Known as 2.5G, the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) was the ideal complement to GPS, allowing the GPS device to transmit its position over the mobile phone networks for very little cost. GPRS was an easy addition to existing 2G services for network operators and by 2000 were becoming ubiquitous. The global coverage of GPS and the growing coverage of GPRS networks allowed vehicle tracking to take off rapidly. Before the term ‘IoT’ appeared, vehicle tracking was known as a Telematics or M2M (Machine to Machine) application.

Ever evolving technology

Of course, neither GPS nor GPRS have stood still. There are now more satellite services, not only those launched by the USA, collectively these are known as GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) and include:

  • GPS (USA)
  • Galileo Europe)
  • GLONASS (Russia)
  • Beidou (China)


There are also two regional systems offering coverage in Japan (QZSS) and India (IRNSS).

Mobile phone networks have also developed of course with the evolution of 3G, 4G and 5G. All of these provide digital data links between the vehicle tracking device and the internet.