Alternatives to satellite vehicle tracking

As wireless technology improves, it’s possible to monitor vehicle movements more accurately than before. Fleet tracking technology is also becoming less expensive, bringing it within the reach of smaller operations.

Traditionally, using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to pinpoint

vehicles was the preserve of large fleet operators, such as trucking companies and railways, says Frank Viquez, director of automotive research at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. That market is nearly saturated today, Viquez says, so fleet management providers are pursuing smaller customers. To do so, they must bring the cost of the technology down. Fortunately, for them, recent developments are making this possible.

Installing GPS devices in vehicles used to cost $1,000 or more per vehicle, says Jerry Leong, manager of data alliances at Telus Mobility.

“”That’s always been something that’s only been available to very large organizations with deep pockets.””

But cellphones with GPS receivers have brought the cost within reach of almost anyone. Leong says the monthly cost of the application is now around $20 to $25 per phone, plus airtime charges. Prices vary, depending on how often the location is reported, but Leong says a $20-a-month, 1.5-megabyte package serves most needs.

Pam Ferguson, product manager for asset tracking and logistics Rogers Wireless Inc., which offers tracking services with a number of partners, says the cost can total less than $50 per month per vehicle, plus $500 to $1,000 up front for the necessary hardware.

Satellite communications costs add up

Even in-vehicle systems today can use the cellular network to report their location to a central point, instead of transmitting that information by satellite as early systems did. That reduces costs noticeably.

The satellite approach wouldn’t have worked for the Region of Waterloo in Ontario, says John Prno, the region’s director of emergency medical services. Transmitting a vehicle location by satellite costs 25 to 50 cents per hit, he says, and the region needs ambulance locations updated every 10 seconds or so. “”Every 10 seconds getting a bill for 50 cents, it grows dramatically,”” Prno says. But using the cellular network, Waterloo can track its 21-ambulance fleet for $65 per vehicle per month, or about $16,000 a year.

Waterloo region, (which includes the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge), has had the Interfleet system from Grey Island Systems International Inc. in Toronto for about five years. Prno says its primary purpose was to reduce response time to emergency calls, which it did at less cost than the obvious alternative of adding ambulances. It has other benefits too, like the ability to get the facts about complaints from the public.

By taking advantage of technological advances and eliminating some of the larger systems’ bells and whistles, says Viquez, vendors are addressing a much broader market. “”We’d be looking at it breaking the billion-dollar (U.S.) mark this year,”” he says, adding that sales should double by 2009.

New technology isn’t just reducing costs, though. It’s also improving capabilities.

Most advances in this area can be attributed to the U.S. government’s requirement that cellular carriers develop the ability to pinpoint the locations of cellphones that call 911 emergency services to within 150 metres 95 per cent of the time. That has accelerated the arrival of GPS-equipped phones and led carriers to explore using the cellular network itself to locate phones more accurately.

The network could always locate a calling phone very roughly based on what cellular transceiver handled the call, but this was too vague to help emergency personnel. If the phone is within range of three cells, though, the network can narrow down its location by triangulating. Some carriers are taking this approach to meeting 911 requirements.

For fleet management, though, relying purely on the cellular network doesn’t seem popular. That’s largely because outside urban areas, a phone often isn’t in range of enough cellular antennas for triangulation to work well. Outside cities, GPS is more reliable.

“”Once you leave the metropolitan areas and you’re into omni-directional cell sites and things like that, a vehicle could be anywhere in a 30-kilometre radius,”” says Ferguson. Rogers uses its wireless network to transmit fleet-tracking data, but uses the GPS system to determine location.

So it’s not surprising attention is focusing on assisted GPS. That means using both GPS and the information available from the cellular network to pin down a phone’s location more accurately than either system could by itself. The beauty of this is that GPS and triangulation have complementary strengths. In rural areas, the lack of cells means triangulation often doesn’t work well, but it’s usually easy to get a clear line of sight to a satellite, so GPS shines. In cities, GPS may be hampered by tall buildings, overpasses and tunnels, but densely concentrated cell sites make triangulation more useful.

So, Viquez says, combining the two is increasingly popular.

Gyroscopes useful in tunnels and blind spots

The wireless network is not the only way of filling gaps in GPS capabilities. Grey Island Systems recently added a dead-reckoning option to its Interfleet system, which is widely used by emergency services in Ontario.

Owen Moore, Grey Island’s co-founder and chief financial officer, says the company ran into problems with tunnels and “”urban canyons”” of tall buildings in New York City blocking satellite signals. So Grey Island added speed sensors and a gyroscope that detects changes in direction. This produces a dead-reckoning system that can take the last known location determined by GPS and estimate a vehicle’s location until it comes within range of GPS again. This system is being installed in Essex County around Windsor, Ont.

Because of doctor shortages, Essex ambulances average a trip a day through to Detroit hospitals’ emergency departments, and more on weekends, says Brian Bildfell, the county’s director of land ambulances. Often the trip takes an ambulance through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Because of heavy traffic, travel times through the tunnel aren’t predictable. Further, there is concern about the possibility of an emergency in the tunnel itself — “”let’s just say that we’re more cognizant of it now than we were before Sept. 11,”” Bildfell says. Other services such as police and highway maintenance in the region are also showing interest in the system, according to Bildfell.

Viquez says dead reckoning is gaining popularity as a GPS adjunct. “”It’s becoming cheaper and cheaper to start adding a gyroscope,”” he says. Although the idea is still a bit costly for phones, Viquez says it’s becoming common in vehicle-based systems.

A Dulles, Va. company called SkyBitz Inc. has another approach to cutting the cost of vehicle location. Its system relies on GPS, but the technology that calculates the vehicle’s location is not in the mobile unit. Instead, SkyBitz installs on the vehicle a small box about the size of a notebook computer that takes a reading from the GPS satellite and transmits the data — via a separate satellite network on which SkyBitz leases capacity — to SkyBitz’s operations centre, which calculates the location and makes it available to the customer.

Attracting small fleet operators

Roni Taylor, SkyBitz’s executive vice-president of marketing and communications, says this means the mobile device is not only simpler and cheaper but uses less power. “”Our device has only been awake for three or four seconds,”” she says. With a GPS chip set embedded, it would take one and a half to two minutes to calculate and transmit the location.

Why use satellites rather than the cellular network to report back? Taylor notes there are still coverage gaps in cellular systems — even in high-traffic areas such as on the train route from New York to Washington. Satellite transmission, on the other hand, works anywhere. SkyBitz has North America covered, and can arrange coverage for other areas. The company has even shown it can track a container crossing the Pacific Ocean, Taylor says.

Cheaper vehicle location systems, and GPS-equipped cellphones that can even track the locations of people rather than bulky vehicles, are expanding the fleet management market. “”The industry is starting to realize that the economics are much different with this sort of solution,”” says Ferguson at Rogers. Where it used to take a 50-vehicle fleet to justify the investment, now there’s a payback for a company with five vehicles, she says. Even some consumers — wealthy ones so far, admittedly — are installing GPS tracking devices to monitor their teenagers’ activities. What’s next? Wireless cat tracking?

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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