There are roughly 280 million registered cars, trucks, and other vehicles in the United States. Commercial fleets lease more than 3.5 million of them.
With that many vehicles on the road, it can be challenging for fleet managers to efficiently keep track of where their vehicles are—and where they’re headed. To keep operations running smoothly, most vehicles today use a Global Positioning System, or GPS device.
Before we dive into the specifics of how fleet managers can leverage satellite navigation systems to track their assets, let’s take a closer look at how GPS technology works.
How does GPS work?
GPS is essentially a network of satellites high above Earth’s surface that are in constant communication with the receivers on the ground.
Every GPS system is made up of three core segments: the space segment (orbiting satellites), the control segment (ground stations), and the user segment (GPS receivers).
Each satellite follows a specific orbit around the Earth, circling the planet twice a day. They are arranged into six equally spaced orbital planes, making at least four of the 24 satellites visible from almost any point on Earth at any given time. Seven additional GPS satellites are kept in reserve in case something goes wrong, to provide the government with additional bandwidth when needed, and to support further expansion projects.
Ground stations monitor and control the orbiting satellites, keeping GPS operational for users. The satellites regularly transmit a radio signal communicating their current location to ground stations.
When a satellite receives a GPS signal from a receiver—that is, your cell phone or on-board vehicle system—the receiver computes its distance from the satellite based on how much time it takes to send the signal. Once it has received signals from three satellites, the receiver uses a complex calculation to determine your exact location. These calculations are based on a mathematical principle called trilateration, which means “positioning from three distances.”
In general, the number of satellites and receivers you have in place, determines how accurately you can report on the location of a device.
To learn how so many satellites reside in our atmosphere today, we need to look back at the history of global positioning systems.
The global positioning system was first developed in 1973 as part of a project by the U.S. Department of Defense. The first prototype was launched into Earth's orbit in 1978. Fifteen years later, 24 GPS satellites were launched to help provide accurate, real-time, global location data.
Initially slated for military use, GPS signals first became available for civilian use in 1983. Today the number of satellites is up to 31 provided by the United States, which doesn’t charge a fee for use. These satellites are what make it possible for modern wayfinding apps like Google Maps and Waze to give us timely and precise location data, right from our mobile phones.
It’s worth noting that there are alternatives to U.S. GPS. These other satellite groups are referred to broadly as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).
The Russian alternative to the U.S. system is called GLONASS (Globalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema). GLONASS was fully operational by 1995 and opened for unrestricted use in 2007. China began operating GPS satellites in 2018 under the name BeiDou. The European Union is developing a GPS system known as Galileo, expected to reach full operation in 2020. Additional regional navigation systems exist in both India and Asia-Oceania.
How can Fleet Managers leverage GPS data?
The general public, already familiar with GPS technology from mapping applications on their mobile phone or vehicle dashboard, knows they can rely on GPS data to find out where they are at any given time. Fleet managers use GPS to ensure the same visibility and physical security over their vehicle fleets and employees.
GPS data gives you the ability to track your fleet assets as they cross a city or region, allowing you to pinpoint their location with extreme accuracy.
Basic GPS systems help fleet drivers find the fastest way from Point A to Point B. Routing software uses and enhances this capability to route multiple vehicles and can even modify routes depending on schedule changes, emergency needs, and other variables.
Beyond basic GPS tracking
Beyond simple tracking, GPS receivers are also included in telematics solutions to provide:
Data to analyze, monitor, and manage. Data is an essential tool in every industry today. When it comes to fleet management, real-time GPS data on the location of your drivers and your vehicles can help you better understand how far drivers are actually driving each day and closely those trips are matching planned routes. This data enables fleet managers to better support driver health and safety, improve vehicle scheduling, and more.
Geofencing. The ability to set specific locations where a vehicle can and should operate helps reduce unwanted personal use, avoids unsafe areas, and reduces time spent manually monitoring vehicle location. Because an alert is sent to dispatch if the vehicle leaves the geofenced area, you can also respond more quickly to theft or vandalism.
Fuel and energy monitoring. Fuel and energy costs can be some of the most difficult to estimate. From fluctuating prices to varying fuel economy among vehicles, regions, routes, and drivers, it can be tempting to just guess and hope it’s not too far off. But fuel and energy are major cost centers for fleets. GPS-based solutions can help you understand how many miles your team will need to drive for a job so can budget better for fuel consumption or better plan for battery charging stops. You’ll also have visibility into where they will be driving so you can project prices at fuel stops or map out battery charging stations.
Asset utilization reporting. Inefficient use of vehicles inevitably costs more money, whether from using too many vehicles, not operating the right size fleet, or even over or underusing particular vehicles. With GPS data you can track how long an asset or vehicle is at a location, which can indicate usage, allowing fleet managers to make sure that each vehicle is being used appropriately.
Maintenance monitoring. If a vehicle is in the shop, it’s not doing its job. But skimping on maintenance can cause bigger problems down the line, costing your company more and taking longer to return the vehicle to service. GPS devices allow for more accurate mileage tracking so you know exactly when to schedule routine maintenance—and when a vehicle has reached the end of its life cycle.
Data-driven driver coaching and incentivization. Until autonomous vehicles go mainstream, one of the biggest variables a fleet manager must contend with is the driver pool. Every driver is different, but knowing where they are and how carefully they are driving can help you ensure their safety on the road. Real-time data about location for individual drivers also helps managers address specific concerns and expectations around timeliness.
Safety and compliance monitoring. Fleets must adhere to strict rules and regulations. Collecting data from a GPS receiver about where your drivers are and when they are driving can help ensure your drivers are following the letter of the law when it comes to Hours of Service, personal conveyance, routing, parking, and more.
Video monitoring tied to specific drivers and their location. Navigation system data can also be tied to video monitoring solutions offering a range of camera configurations, including cameras that face the driver as well as the road. These cameras can help exonerate a driver in an accident, for example, by providing footage and location information that can show what happened and where.
Liability prevention and insurance benefits. Insurance companies today are heavily promoting the benefits of GPS data and vehicle monitoring. Just as consumer grade “safe driving” apps offer insurance discounts for good driving behavior, commercial insurers are offering better rates for fleets that use technology to ensure a safe driving culture and record.
GPS mistakes to avoid
Once you realize the value of GPS technology for your fleet and the many forms it can take, the last thing you want to do is miss out on all this potential.
To make the most of your GPS-based solutions, steer clear of these common mistakes:
1. Not monitoring the right assets
If you’re not monitoring all of your assets with a GPS device, you won’t have the data you need for accurate decision-making.
The best plan will incorporate all of your current assets into your navigation system solution, including cars, trucks, and trailers. By monitoring your full portfolio of assets, you can ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. Even one underused vehicle can hurt the bottom line.
2. Gathering inaccurate data
Only accurate data is useful data. If you don’t collect your data carefully and consistently from day one, you risk throwing off months of effort—not to mention spending thousands of dollars on a navigation system with inaccurate results.
Key factors in ensuring accurate data include installing the GPS receiver correctly and preventing employees from tampering with the device.
3. Ignoring the data
Once you have accurate data in hand, the sheer quantity can be overwhelming. Every vehicle has multiple data points, from mileage, fault codes, and fuel efficiency to driver hours and behavior. When you multiply that by a fleet of even 20 vehicles, you may end up with more data than you know what to do with.
However, ignoring all that data would be a big misstep for your business. When you implement a GPS solution, try to work closely with your vendors or suppliers to ensure you are receiving the data that matters most to your fleet. That way you’ll know that you’re focusing on the right information to set and meet your goals.
Finally, if your new data unearths an unknown issue, make sure to take action right away. You may find out that your traditional trucks have half the fuel economy of the new model you just purchased, or the reason a particular driver accounts for 60% of your insurance claims. These insights won’t serve your business if no one acts on them.
Quality GPS-based solutions for fleets
Real-world savings and safety enhancements are being unearthed via GPS systems every day. Let’s take a look at several fleets using Samsara’s GPS-based solutions to solve challenges and inefficiencies in their operations.
Dohrn Transfer Company operates 470 tractors and 75 straight trucks across 14 states and 21 terminals. The less-than-truckload carrier needed to ensure compliance for its 645 drivers, track preventative maintenance, and continue working on driver safety.
Before Samsara, the team had to estimate when drivers might return for their next load, or they had to call drivers directly. Now the team relies on Samsara’s live-to-the-second GPS location tracking and can easily search by truck number to make better real-time decisions about who to send where and how to plan the day.
Windy City Limousine & Bus, which operates a 350-vehicle fleet, needed better ways to provide real-time information to customers and ensure their safety during travel.
Before Samsara, Windy City had GPS tracking on their vehicles but regularly struggled with data accuracy. Whenever a customer called to ask about their vehicle’s location, the team had to call or text chauffeurs directly to get up-to-date information.
Once Samsara’s GPS fleet tracking solutions were implemented, Windy City’s customers had real-time visibility on vehicle locations, leading to a 30% drop in dispatch call volume. The fleet also managed to eliminate 500 hours of mobile phone communication each month.
With more than 1,700 vehicles across multiple departments, the City of Fort Lauderdale, FL, was looking for ways to improve its services, reduce its environmental impact, and decrease its fleet downtime.
Following Hurricanes Matthew and Irma ,the City of Fort Lauderdale had trouble responding to citizen calls that their neighborhood hadn’t been cleared of dangerous storm debris blocking roads and walkways. With Samsara in place, the city now has plans to be ready for the next storm, and will be relying on Samsara’s real-time GPS to keep close tabs on the location of their cleanup fleet.
The real-time data provided by each GPS unit has enabled the city to better address citizen complaints and improve emergency response times, both for medical emergencies and severe weather conditions.
The GPS of tomorrow: faster and more accurate
Given the expanding population of human drivers, along with increasing interest in autonomous vehicles, GPS usage and applications will no doubt continue to grow as well.
Efforts to update and upgrade the global positioning system have been—and continue to be—a priority. In 2000, the U.S. government authorized the “modernization act” to create GPS III. The project, which will introduce new GPS satellites orbiting Earth and additional navigation signals, is on track to be completed in 2023.
While most of us take GPS for granted in our day-to-day lives, the fleet industry wouldn’t be nearly the powerhouse it is today without GPS technology. GPS has provided insights into fleet operations that would have been impossible to obtain just a few decades ago—and it only promises to grow faster and more accurate as time goes on.