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The Evolution of GPS Vehicle Tracking to Telematics

The pace of innovation in telematics technology is moving so fast that our heads are spinning. What started from simple GPS tracking has evolved tremendously to include new capabilities. From fuel monitoring to engine diagnostics, telematics has expanded to enable businesses to gain insight into operations and find ways to drive productivity and efficiency.

Over the past century, telematics has been a hot topic in the industry. But how did it all start?

Well, the seed that has planted the entire telematics concept as we now understand it is Global Positioning System (GPS). Without it, there would be no telematics.

What is GPS?

Frequently referred to as GPS, Global Positioning System is a radio navigation system powered by 24 U.S. navigation satellites that transmits radio signals to determine the location of GPS receivers placed on Earth or connected to moving objects. Today, GPS is used in navigation, mapping, surveying, telematics and other applications that require accurate positioning.

The History of GPS

Throughout history, scientists have always been obsessed with determining positioning. Starting from maps to compasses, they have always tried to develop some sort of navigational system. This was primarily aimed at helping explorers reach their destinations. But as the years went by, the U.S. Military gained a lot of interest in the navigation concept. This led in many historical officials to offer benefits to anyone who was able to build an accurate navigation system. But it wasn’t until 1957 when the Soviet scientists launched Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, that U.S. researchers succeeded in making a breakthrough. While monitoring Sputnik’s radio transmission frequency, they discovered the Russian satellite was transmitting radio signals that increased as it approached and decreased as it moved away as a result of the Doppler shift. This then formed the basis for subsequent attempts to make accurate navigation a reality.

The Birth of Transit, Timation and System 621B

Consequently, the U.S. Navy introduced the first TRANSIT satellite navigation system in 1960. Using the knowledge acquired from tracking Sputnik, the system was intended to find submarines carrying nuclear missiles using six satellites orbiting the poles. While this was a huge leap to navigation and tracking, there were its limitations. The system was not easy to use and did not provide accurate timekeeping. It also needed the user to know the location of the satellite and the position of the vessel on the floor. These drawbacks paved the way for the U.S. Navy to create an upgraded navigation system called the Timation Program in 1964. Powered by 21 to 27 satellites, this system made precise timing a reality by using atomic clocks. Around the same time Timation was introduced, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was also in the pursuit of developing its own navigation system called 621B – a three-dimensional navigation system providing latitude, longitude, and altitude navigation services.


In 1973, both departments were called by the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) to join systems and set up a unified navigation system. This led to the creation of the NAVSTAR GPS program, now known as GPS. At that time, it was limited to military use until it reached the masses in the 1990s. This then opened doors for people and companies to use GPS for car tracking, driver assistance and fleet management.

What is Telematics?

The term telematics originates from the combination of informatics and telecommunications. It involves placing a device with wireless technology in vehicles to track their condition, including their location, performance, and health. Read more on how telematics works.

The History of Telematics?

While telematics is just starting to create a buzz in the sector, it is not a new concept. A look through history shows that the word was coined in a technology development report in 1978. Furthermore, a civilian study was conducted in the early 1980s to evaluate how telematics can improve road safety and reduce environmental impact. Although history shows that telematics had existed for over three centuries, all the parts for it came together in the 1990s. This comes after GPS was made public, cell phone technology and the Internet advanced, and vehicles with an On-board Diagnostics port were manufactured.

Telematics technology started to popularize in the early 2000s, as they were commonly used in fleet management systems. But due to the lack of broadband connection, updates to maps were very slow, limiting the transmission of information. But thanks to the development of cloud and machine-to-machine (M2M) technology in the late 2000s, it enable telematics to report GPS tracking information accurately and superfast. In addition, the advent of Application Program Interface (APIs) has recently made it possible for fleets to integrate with other technologies to reduce costs, automate manual duties, and gain deeper insight into operations.

Telematics Sector Today

Today, the telematics industry is experiencing significant growth and is considered a crucial sector for a multitude of industries around the world. Research conducted by Gartner Inc shows that revenue for the global commercial fleet telematics industry is anticipated to increase to $55 billion by 2021. This is almost twice the industry’s current revenue. Through the use of telematics, fleets can now accomplish the following:

  • Locate Vehicles and Drivers
  • Improve vehicle utilization
  • Encourage safe driving methods
  • Reduce fuel expenses
  • Meet vehicle maintenance requirements
  • Prevent vehicle theft

Read more about the benefits of telematics.

Author: The Geotab Africa Team                   

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