Trends in Vehicle Tracking Technology

Market adoption of vehicle tracking systems is growing fast, with the majority of commercial vehicles in North America and Europe already using the technology, and rapid growth occurring in Asian and emerging markets. A recent market study concluded that the global vehicle tracking market will grow from $10.91 billion in 2013 to $30.45 billion by 2018, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 22.8%.
Vehicle tracking combines satellite positioning with cellular communications to enable a long list of services for both private and commercial vehicles

The driving factors for adoption of vehicle tracking for both commercial and private vehicles are:

  • Lowering of logistics costs: optimization of container loading, improved routing, stock level optimization, and improved operational overview
  • Providing a better service: real-time and historical positional reporting
  • Increased security: theft detection and traceability of shipped goods
  • Facilitating stolen goods/vehicle recovery and prevention of fuel theft
  • Monitoring of CO2 emissions, fuel efficiency, and vehicle health
  • Driver management and logging of driving behavior
  • Rollout of large-scale emergency call systems for private and commercial vehicles
  • Government mandate to include tracking technology in new vehicles
  • Falling cost and size, and increasing performance of satellite positioning receivers and cellular modems
  • Facilitating of insurance claims based on accident re-construction using logged position, direction, speed and acceleration data.
  • Miniaturization of tracking units and antenna allowing covert mounting and installation in smaller enclosures
  • Falling power requirements facilitating longer battery life and solar powered devices, especially applicable to asset tracking devices with no connection to the vehicle power supply
  • Easy interfacing to globally available public and proprietary web and smartphone applications, including modem compatibility with IPv4 and IPv6 (e.g. Google Maps, Google GPS and numerous vendor-specific applications)

Issues and requirements
There are several hardware issues when addressing the above mentioned scenarios:

Compatibility with multiple Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) systems
GPS is no longer the only global navigation satellite system available. The Russian GLONASS is now fully operational, the Chinese BeiDou and Japanese QZSS systems are partially operational, and the EU Galileo system will be available by 2019. Requirements for compatibility with these systems vary from single-system to multiple system compliance, either one at a time or with parallel functionality.

u-blox M8 multi-GNSS receiver modules MAX, NEO and LEA supporting GPS, QZSS, GLONASS, BeiDou with dual-GNSS capability

These requirements are dictated by where a tracking application will be used: weak signal environments such as urban canyons or arctic regions where satellites appear low on the horizon may necessitate parallel GNSS operation. Government mandate is also a consideration; in Russia, for example, the ERA-GLONASS vehicle emergency call system requires GLONASS compatibility. A similar situation exists in China with BeiDou.

Performance requirements may require vehicle tracking systems that are compatible with multiple GNSS systems simultaneously: access to more satellites results in faster time to fix and more reliable operation, particularly in high-rise cities.

Operation in areas with poor satellite reception
For tracking applications, visibility of GNSS satellites is critical to calculate a position. With GPS/GNSS satellites transmitting with a power of about 30 watts from a distance of 20 thousand kilometers, and the requirement to lock onto 4 satellites, tracking performance and accuracy can become degraded in urban canyons, when indoors (e.g. inside warehouses, rail stations, park houses), or when the receiver is within metallic containers. For tracking applications, this issue can be addressed via several techniques:

  • Integrated dead reckoning: augmenting GNSS receivers with sensor data that reports distance and heading changes from the last known position. This is commonly implemented in automotive navigation systems to support uninterrupted navigation within tunnels. Accelerometer readings can also improve positioning within multi-level park houses or stacked highways by taking into account vertical displacement. Refer to u-blox’ embedded dead reckoning GNSS technology.
  • Hybrid positioning techniques for indoor positioning: Adding a second parallel system that can estimate position based on other attributes such as visible mobile or Wi-Fi cells adds an additional measure of security when GNSS satellite visibility is blocked: even an approximate location within a few hundred meters, or even a few kilometers is preferable to no positional information at all, especially when it comes to valuable shipments and vehicles (refer to u-blox’ CellLocate® technology).

Compatibility with multiple cellular standards
Relying on the GSM/GPRS (2G) standard for tracking devices was easy as it has been uniformly adopted worldwide. GSM/GPRS, however, is falling prey to next-generation 3G standards, specifically UMTS/HSPA, CDMA2000 (in the USA) and LTE, all of which are not uniformly deployed around the world. Specifically, there are many regional variants of 3G and 4G standards that operate over different frequency bands.

Nested modem PCB design is important for creating regional variants of a tracking device, and to allow for future upgrades. Pictured: u-blox SARA, LISA and TOBY modules supporting GSM, UMTS and LTE

This highlights the desirability of cellular modems that support different standards (GSM, UMTS, CDMA, LTE) while retaining footprint compatibility on the same PCB layout. This reduces hardware costs when designing tracking systems with regional variants, or upgrading to the next-generation tracking technology (ex. 2G to 3G upgrade). Refer to u-blox’ nested design concept for cellular modules.

Automotive grade components
Lastly, but equally important to all aspects discussed previously, vehicle tracking applications require automotive grade components. As “automotive grade” is a relative term whose definition is different depending on manufacturers and end-customers, at the very minimum modem and GNSS components (and all other electronic components in the design) should qualified according to AEC‑Q100, manufactured in ISO/TS 16949 certified sites, and fully tested at the factory on a system level. Qualification tests should be performed as stipulated in the ISO16750 standard: “Road vehicles – Environmental conditions and testing for electrical and electronic equipment”.

Vehicle tracking is becoming a defacto requirement for private, commercial and public transportation. As both GNSS and cellular technologies are in a constant state of flux, it is important to design tracking systems that address regional satellite and cellular compatibility, positioning in areas where satellite visibility is degraded or absent, ease of hardware variants and upgrade, suppression of radio inference and conforming to automotive quality requirements.

Due to the long-life expected of vehicle tracking devices, as well as reliable performance over large geographical areas, it is best to base designs not only on the current state of the technology, but also on the expected lifetime of the system.

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