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GPS Trackers - What They Are, How to Choose
Published: Friday, May 3, 2013

By: Staff Writers

GPS Tracking Devices are becoming commonplace with parents and teenage drivers.

This article explains what Teen Driving GPS Trackers are, how they work and what to look for in choosing a monitor to safeguard your son or daughter.

Click here for Dr. Robin Kirby's perspective on parenting and using GPS Trackers.  When I Monitor My Teen's Driving...Am I Spying?

After reviewing this information see product details here.

How does GPS work?

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a group of 27 Earth-orbiting satellites (24 in operation and three extras in case one fails). The U.S. military developed and implemented this satellite network as a military navigation system, but now lets everyone use the signals. These "signals" are simply radio signals continuously beamed back to earth, which can be received by radio receivers built into the teen GPS Trackers.

What are the different kinds of GPS tracking devices?

When someone talks about "having a GPS tracker in the car" they are talking about a GPS radio receiver. It receives radio signals from the global positioning satellites.

There are two basic types of GPS receiver used to track and monitor vehicles:

  • Passive GPS Trackers, and
  • Active GPS Trackers

Passive GPS

Passive GPS tracking devices have receivers that simply "listen" to the satellite signals and record (save) those signals as digital information. Then, when you want to see where the car has been driven, you connect the GPS Tracker to your PC, usually through its USB port. The PC downloads the digital information and uses software to turn that raw satellite data into tabular listings, charts and maps.

These reports let you review driving history since the last time you downloaded information to your PC. Of course you can save data from different downloads to build up a long-range view of driving over time.

The Safe Teen Driving Club's Vehicle Reporter is a passive GPS Tracking device.You simply install the included software on your Windows PC. 

Then, when the GPS Tracker has recorded driving information, just plug the Vehicle Reporter into the USB port. In a matter of seconds the entire day's or week's driving information will be displayed on your PC screen. Easy! No cables to mess with. Just plug it in.

Pros and Cons - Passive Systems

Passive GPS trackers are usually portable; they can be carried from one vehicle to another, as they are battery powered and have no wires connected to the car. On one hand, this portability is convenient if your teen drives more than one family vehicle. You can simply move the unit from car to car.

On the other hand, some parents have expressed concern about the teen removing the unit from the car or disabling it in some fashion. It is possible to disable a passive GPS tracker – it's as easy as removing the batteries. But when it's disabled, you'll know as soon as you download the driving info: it won't be there! The Vehicle Reporter captures a GPS signal once every second; 60 times each minute. If you see large "gaps" in the data that has been recorded, it's clear evidence that the unit was not operational during those times. So if you're concerned about your teenager beating the system, you can simply explain that you expect to see all the driving information at each download. Any "gaps" will be apparent, and reason to have further discussion.

Many families using teen GPS trackers also use a parent-teen driving agreement, such as the Safe Teen Driving Pledge available here for free. This agreement helps parents and teens reach an understanding and agreement on the family rules around driving. One of the rules contained in the Pledge prohibits disabling a GPS tracker or other monitoring device. By setting that rule and appropriate penalties, much of the concern about tampering and disabling the unit disappears.

Here are several sample reports and maps delivered by the Vehicle Reporter; they'll give you clear picture of what you can expect. You can also watch a short video here that goes into further detail on Vehicle Reporter's operation.

Active GPS

Active GPS trackers have receivers that work in much the same way as passive units. However the active units include an internal cellular phone device that actually makes a phone call every few minutes. The phone call transfers satellite readings and information saved inside the GPS Tracker to an Internet site where you can log in and track the vehicle in near real time.

The Safe Teen Driving Club's active teen GPS tracker is the XP420 Tracker. It has been chosen from among dozens of competing products and selected as our preferred active unit based on reliability, ease of use, one year warranty and price.

How are these GPS trackers different than Garmin, TomTom and others I’ve heard about?

Those GPS receivers are designed to give you driving directions. They read the satellite signals and dispense advice on how to get from point "A" to point "B." But they do not monitor and track a vehicle. GPS monitors used for tracking vehicles are technically known as "telematic" devices. While there are many potential applications for vehicle telematics, perhaps its most important use is to help reduce and ideally eliminate road injuries and traffic related deaths.

Can I conceal the system from my teen?

Yes. But we don't recommend it! The first time you sit down to discuss a driving report, the cat will be out of the bag. Furthermore, talking about monitoring your teen's driving gives you a way to express your concern about their safety, and to set expectations about their driving. Having an open discussion shows that, as a parent, you want your son or daughter to recognize your concern, and that driving safety is vital.

Putting a GPS tracking device in the car serves as a very effective deterrent against aggressive, risky and dangerous driving. Because "you can't hide" from a teen GPS tracker, your son or daughter will realize that his or her driving is important enough to you that you're willing to spend a few dollars to keep them safe and alive. You might want to read advice from Dr. Robin Kirby, clinical psychologist and family therapist, on how to talk with your teen about monitoring their driving.

What are the pros and cons for "Active" versus "Passive" GPS Monitors?

Generally, an active system uses wireless networks so you receive information and view the location of your teens' car in nearly real-time. Active GPS tracking devices have become the standard both for consumer and business applications. The unit is always ON (when the car's ignition is ON) and can tell you where the vehicle is from moment to moment 24x7.

Passive systems are typically used when you don't care about having real-time location information or real-time alerts when driving rules are violated – or when cost and budget are an issue. When a passive GPS tracker is placed in a vehicle, the location data is stored and downloaded from the vehicle, usually at the end of the day.

How important is the wireless network used for real-time GPS tracking?

If you are looking to purchase a first rate active teen GPS tracking system, then you should be looking for a system that operates on a 1st tier digital wireless network. All of the 1st tier wireless communications companies is the U.S. market use digital wireless networks. There are two types of types of digital wireless protocols:

  • GSM/GPRS – AT&T (Cingular), T-Mobile
  • CDMA (1xrt) - Verizon, Sprint, Alltel

Safe Teen Driving Club's XP420 Tracker uses the preferred "always on" technology of GPRS. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is the same service used by your teen to send text messages from her cell phone. It's the same service that's used to send email from PDA's and cell phones. GPRS is used to transmit data rather than voice. It is typically charged per kilobyte of transferred data, while cell phone voice conversation is billed per minute of connection time.

If you are shopping for and learning about teen GPS trackers, avoid purchasing systems that run on outdated non-digital networks such as Mobitext, Velocita, Aeris and Cellemetry.

No Installation Hassle or Cost!

The Vehicle Reporter is a small, portable device that requires no installation.

The Safe Teen XP420 Tracker requires no installation. It is a real-time GPS tracking device, designed with Plug-n-Play technology that connects directly to the OBD-II (on-board diagnostic) port  under the dashboard in post-1996 passenger vehicles. Simple plug-in installation allows users to easily track vehicle and driver performance at a password-protected  web site.

What to look for in a real-time GPS tracking system?

When shopping for a real-time GPS tracking device, there are a few topics you should examine.

  • Reporting and mapping capability – take a look at the mapping and reporting available to you. 
  • Wireless Network - Be sure the unit you are considering runs on a GPRS digital network.
  • Unlimited Use – Be sure the unit you are considering has a flat monthly fee with no "overage charges."
Mapping Functionality

For most users of GPS tracking devices, mapping plays a big role in overall satisfaction with the system. Most GPS tracker systems use web-based mapping applications similar to Map Quest or Yahoo Maps. Vehicle Reporter uses its own built-in mapping software. The XP400 Tracker uses web based mapping as well as Google maps, which are widely recognized as perhaps the most advanced mapping service available to consumers.

Other mapping features to look for:
  • Geo-fencing capability - should allow unlimited number of geo-fences.
  • Landmark identification- should allow you to permanently mark landmarks such as home, school and other frequented locations for viewing on the map
  • Breadcrumb history view - should show historical travel path of vehicle
  • User-defined zoom levels
Reporting Functionality

The web hosted software should have easy to use, detailed reporting capabilities. At a minimum, the reports offered should be:

  • Vehicle Activity Report
  • Vehicle Stop Report
  • Vehicle Speed Report
  • Landmark in/out Report

XP420 Tracker offers over a dozen reports. Further, you can schedule any of those reports to be emailed to you at various times throughout the day. For example, you might have an Activity Report emailed to you at 9AM and again at 4PM to make sure your teen has arrived at school in the morning and returned home after school.

Monthly Fees

All real-time GPS Tracker systems have a monthly fee that pays for the hosted web tracking and reporting fees, and the cellular network charges. You will be best served by active GPS devices that offer an "unlimited use" cellular data plan. That way you'll pay a predictable flat monthly fee for unlimited use and unlimited polling.

Some GPS providers advertise cellular "starter plans" or "value plans" with a certain number of "pings" or "vehicle locates" each month. Each "ping" or "locate" is like a phone call to the GPS tracker to find out where it is right now. If you "locate" or "ping" the car too many times during the month, you'll be subject to additional cellular overage fees.

What's worse with these "ping" and "locate" plans – in many cases those GPS units provide no driving history. You can "ping" and find out where the car is right now, but have no way to see where it was last night, or even an hour ago. If your goal in using a teen GPS tracker to monitor and coach your child, be sure to choose a GPS unit that gives you full driving history

XP420 Tracker's cellular data service is billed at a flat monthly rate. This gives you continuous live reports 24 x 7. It also gives you complete driving history, typically spanning the last several weeks.

Polling Rate

The polling rate is the interval at which the GPS unit makes a cellular data report to the Internet tracking site. It determines how close to real-time you can view your vehicle's location, as well as the detail you receive in the reports that are generated. The lower the polling rate, the closer to real-time information is available. The XP420 Tracker is factory set to transmit at a five-minute intervals. A two-minute polling rate is also available as an option.

Insurance Discounts

Finally, once you have installed either of these GPS trackers in your car, contact your insurance agent. Some states may offer discounts on your premium, usually on the comprehensive coverage. Visit this page and see the insurance information table for further details. See more on teen insurance savings here.

Warranty & Support

Safe Teen Driving Club sells only GPS monitors that are backed with a full one year factory warranty. Technical support is available during business hours at no charge for each GPS monitor we sell.

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