By Mike Antich

Truck fleets were among the earliest adopters of GPS technology. GPS is used to reduce fuel spend by optimizing routing, increase driver accountability by deterring speeding and excessive idling, track hours of service and overtime, and prevent unauthorized usage of assets. The explosion in commercial GPS applications began 10 years ago when President Clinton made a more precise GPS signal available for civilian use May 1, 2000. Prior to this, the U.S. government set up a "selective availability" block to prevent military use of GPS by potential adversaries. Clinton's order increased the accuracy of commercial satellite navigation receivers from 100 yards to 10 yards. On the 10th anniversary of Clinton's decision, it is apparent it was the trigger that helped stimulate a breakthrough in fleet GPS technology, which is where most of today's innovations are occurring. In the past decade, we've seen the price of GPS receivers drop dramatically, while becoming more sophisticated with access to real-time information via the Internet during route calculation.

However, the current GPS system is aging.

Next Generation of GPS III

The first GPS satellite was launched by the U.S. in 1978, and the system was partially functioning with 21 satellites by 1993. To be fully operational, three satellites are needed to ascertain the position of a GPS receiver. To accomplish this, it takes 24 satellites in orbit to ensure three satellites are available anywhere in the world and at any time. (There are also three back-up satellites.)

Many of the U.S. GPS satellites are aging. Of the 21 older satellites, 20 are past their contracted mean mission duration of six years. Moreover, of all the satellites, 13 are one component away from mission failure, according to government reports.

As a result, the U.S. is starting to deploy the next generation of satellite navigation technology, known as GPS III (the current system is the second generation). A GPS III satellite will provide improved positioning, navigation, and timing services to military and civilian users by improving accuracy, resistance to hostile jamming, and new, sophisticated applications needed to operate intelligent highway and traffic-safety systems. The new GPS system will provide major performance improvements over the existing legacy satellites. In addition, GPS III will include a new civil signal compatible with the EU's Galileo system.

On May 27, the U.S. Air Force successfully launched into orbit the first of the 32 new-generation GPS satellites it will deploy. When fully deployed, the GPS III constellation will furnish civilian users with three new positioning signals and provide the U.S. military with two additional signals, which are higher power and more jam-resistant. GPS III includes a 10-fold increase in signal power. The current GPS signal is extremely weak.

In 2007, the City of San Diego found out firsthand the vulnerability of a weak GPS signal when the U.S. Navy accidentally jammed GPS signals in the area. A scheduled two-hour communications jamming training exercise was conducted between two Navy ships in the port of San Diego. The exercise inadvertently created GPS outages, shutting down telephone switches, cell phone operations, and a hospital's mobile paging system. General aviation GPS navigation equipment outages were also reported, but no commercial airlines were affected. Jamming is difficult and is only successful in a small area. However, this incident exposed the system's vulnerability.

Rival GPS Systems

The European Union (EU), Russia, and China have begun deploying their own GPS systems to eliminate dependence on the U.S. system. Galileo is the name of the European GPS counterpart, which begins operation in 2013. Galileo is a joint venture between the EU, the European Space Agency, and several non-European countries, such as China and Saudi Arabia. Galileo will include a network of 30 satellites. The Russian GPS system, called GLONASS, will have full global coverage by year-end 2010.  Likewise, China is racing to establish its own GPS system known as the Beidou or Compass system. China's goal is to have 12 satellites in orbit before 2012 to cover the Asia and Pacific region. It will complete the system by 2020 with 35 navigation satellites providing global GPS services.

Future GPS III Applications & Innovations

It is exciting to speculate about new fleet applications that will be developed using the more sophisticated GPS III system. Future innovations will most likely include greater connectivity to integrate online and location-based information into the navigation software and more realistic 3D views of route terrain. GPS applications will proliferate on smart phones, since these phones already contain the data connection necessary for the integration of real-time navigation data.

Today, 20 million people regularly use GPS technology. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the vision and technical prowess of the U.S. military and its hi-tech contractors. GPS is one of the many dividends that were the byproducts of the U.S. defense budget. In an unprecedented magnanimous gesture, the U.S. government freely gave it as a gift to the entire planet.

Let me know what you think.

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About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

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