There is perhaps no technology that has been more transformative for the trucking industry than GPS. With the Global Positioning System, it’s now possible to use satellites to locate any GPS receiver, anywhere on earth.
GPS provides specific, detailed location and mapping data, allowing companies and drivers to identify the best and fastest routes, avoid traffic and hazards, and provide up-to-the-minute information about the location and status of cargo.
For truck drivers, GPS not only helps identify the optimal route, but it helps conserve fuel, log trips, gives traffic alerts, and even enhance driver safety with access to health care, law enforcement, and emergency services.
A Brief history of GPS
GPS was developed by the US military starting in the 1970s, and, while free and available for civilians to use, it remains a military asset. Before the advent of GPS, the US Navy used a satellite-based navigation system called TRANSIT.
The Air Force used a radio navigation system for missile control called 621B. And the US Army used their SECOR system for geodetic surveying, which involved ground-based transmitters sending signals to a satellite in order to triangulate positions. It wasn’t until all these branches of the military agreed to collaborate and share technologies that the groundwork for modern GPS was laid in 1973 by the Department of Defense.
In 1983, after a passenger plane was shot down after straying into Soviet Airspace, President Reagan directed that GPS technology should be made available for civilian use, to serve the common good. Initially, the military reserved the highest quality signals for its own use, but that was overridden by President Clinton’s directive in 2000 to provide the highest accuracy possible for all users.
The White House has continually reinforced the position that GPS is a public resource, and should benefit everyone, directing the Department of Defense to “maintain a Standard Positioning Service […] that will be available on a continuous, worldwide basis,” and “develop measures to prevent hostile use of GPS and its augmentations without unduly disrupting or degrading civilian uses.”
By 2015, high-quality GPS receivers were able to provide horizontal accuracy of fewer than 3.5 meters under good conditions.
How GPS works
It’s common to think of GPS as being aware of where things are located on the ground. But in fact, it’s truer that GPS works by knowing where things are in the sky.
The GPS network consists of 30 satellites orbiting the earth at 20,000 km. At any given time, at any point on the planet, a GPS receiver is within “view” of at least 4 of these satellites. The satellites, loaded with highly-accurate atomic clocks, constantly transmit radio waves back to the earth. Analyzing how much time it takes those radio waves to reach a receiver, since radio waves travel at the speed of light, gives the necessary information about where the satellite is located. The orbiting clocks are synchronized daily with clocks on the surface, to keep the system accurate.
Using the radio waves, a GPS receiver on the planet surface has real-time data about how far away it is from any satellite within view. Using the location information from three or more satellites, a GPS receiver can quickly calculate where it itself is located, using the process of trilateration.
In other words, unlike some other kinds of satellites, GPS satellites are not “looking down” at the earth and observing anything. They simply constantly broadcast their location, and that location information, combined with the same information from two or more other satellites, pinpoints the location of a fourth object, the GPS receiver.
Why truck drivers need a GPS system
A lot of people wonder why, in this age of smartphones, truckers still need to use a dedicated GPS system. There are several reasons why these devices are not only useful but necessary:
- They don’t require cellular service to operate. Since the GPS system uses radio waves and circumnavigates the globe, it has no dead spots and doesn’t require cell service. There are still large areas that don’t have good data coverage or would require your device to “roam” to pick up a signal. GPS technologies don’t have that problem.
- Battery life. A smartphone is a versatile and useful device. Keeping it constantly running and giving driving directions consumes the battery and renders it less useful for any of its other functions. Dedicated GPS devices typically charge from your cigarette lighter and don’t compete with other functions to drain your battery.
- Emergency services. Many GPS systems connect you quickly with emergency services, even when there is no cellular coverage or local 911 access, and can transmit your location to emergency responders.
- Specialized truck services. See further explanation below.
Why truck drivers need a truck-specific GPS system
Many GPS systems are designed for use in cars, and some drivers simply use those less-expensive systems for navigation. However, a GPS system designed for trucks have features that truckers rely upon.
- Restricted roads: many roads are restricted to exclude trucks or vehicles above a certain size and weight, or have lower speed limits for cars than trucks. Car GPS systems will not alert drivers to that information
- Custom routes: enter the size and weight of your truck, and get a route that takes into account weight and clearances. Again, car systems don’t provide those features.
- Custom alerts: truck-designed GPS systems also alert drivers to sharp curves, steep grades, and other relevant hazards specific to the size of their vehicle.
- Truck and trailer services: these GPS systems will allow truck drivers to select truck stops by amenities, ratings, and other relevant information, or locate service stations with the right capabilities.
- Trip logging: GPS systems designed for trucks often have convenient features that keep track of mileage, time, maintenance, and other data necessary for your records and reporting.
For all these reasons, truck drivers should find a reliable, dedicated, truck-designed GPS system and use their phones for other things.
Best Truck GPS reviews
Here are our reviews of some of the most popular GPS systems available:
Garmin is a famous brand in GPS technologies. The Garmin
- Includes Garmin USA Warranty
- 5″ display
- Truck GPS Navigation System
- Free lifetime map updates and traffic avoidance information
- North American maps also include truck-related restrictions
- Comes with the Garmin Nuvi 5 inch protect, stow, and carry Soft Case
- Comes with 1 piece microfiber cloth
- Custom truck routing for the weight and size of your truck
- Truck &Trailer Services Directory plus points of interest (POIs) highly-rated by truckers
- Road warnings, including bridge heights, sharp curves, weight limits and so on
- Extra-loud, improved speakers deliver turn-by-turn directions that are easy to understand
- Simple Truck Profile lets you quickly swap trailer sizes with the touch of a button
- Onboard Trip Planner lets you create multiple-stop routes and plan and save future trips
- Enter your truck profile and get customized routes and restrictions for your journey
- Swap stored truck profiles quickly and easily
- Accurate arrival time estimations
Largedisplay screen is easy to see, read, and follow in a variety of vehicles
- In side-by-side comparisons with other units, this one does not always choose the fastest or shortest route, even when directed to do so
Another GPS from Garmin, this one also has the large, readable 5” display and a host of user-friendly features. We are looking specifically at the model with lifetime map updates but without the free traffic update feature.
- Foursquare: search millions of additional popular or new restaurants, shops and more with Foursquare
- Garmin Real Directions: guides you by using traffic lights and landmarks
- Direct Access: streamlines navigating to select complex destinations, like airports and malls
- Backup Camera Compatible: Take the worry out of reversing with the BC 30 Wireless Backup Camera (sold separately)
- Preloaded with detailed maps of the lower 49 U.S. states with free lifetime map updates
- Direct Access simplifies navigating to select complex destinations, like malls and airports
- Does not rely on cellular signals and is unaffected by cellular dead zones.
- The display can be used horizontally or vertically
- Up Ahead feature: easily find places Up Ahead, like food and gas stations, without leaving the map
- Lane Assist: displays upcoming junctions and uses brightly colored arrows to indicate your proper lane
- School zone warnings issue an audible alert and display an onscreen warning whenever you approach a school zone. The displayed speed limit also changes to reflect the school zone speed limit.
- Direct Access feature is useful when driving to or in airports, retail parks, and complexes where street addresses are less helpful.
- Does not have real-time traffic information
- Is designed for cars, not trucks, so it doesn’t have truck restrictions or information
- Can only be charged and powered with the included cigarette lighter
adaptor, which is not a conventional USB cable, and not with the onboard USB port. Many drivers find the extra cable on the dashboard annoying and inconvenient.
- Truck and Trailer Services Directory: Search and filter truck stops by brand name or preferred amenities. Find points of interest highly-rated by truckers, including hotels, restaurants
- Foursquare: search millions of additional new and popular restaurants, shops and more with Foursquare
- The Service History Log on your dēzl allows you to keep track of tire mileage, tire changes, tire pressure, oil changes, and more. Easily record dates, mileage
- Truck Routing: customized routing for the size and weight of your truck
- Lifetime maps of North America, plus lifetime HD Digital Traffic
- Custom truck routing for the size and weight of your truck
- Bluetooth capable
- Backup camera compatible
- Voice command inputs in addition to the touchscreen
- Advisories and cautions alert truck drivers to sharp curves, high winds, grounding restrictions, and other truck-specific information, including hazardous materials, and truck-specific speed limits.
- If you are affected by after-sunset conditions, know local sunrise and sunset times. Your route will be pinpointed with mile markers to show your precise location
- State and country border notices appear 5 miles before you reach a border.
- Easy Route Shaping lets you alter your drive to include your preferred roads and towns. Add a point to your onscreen route and dēzl will reconfigure driving directions accordingly.
- The Truck and Trailer Services directory lists more than 30,000 truck repair and service locations in the U.S. and Canada, including those offering after-hours road service
Onlydēzl has Active Lane Guidance (ALG). This is specialized technology that assists you to navigate through exits and intersections with ease. As you approach your exit, you will see two images on the screen: the right is Active Lane Guidance and the left displays your route. ALG displays the lane you need for your route. It lets you know in advance, so you have enough time to move into that lane
- With dēzl, you can improve the accuracy of your reports and simplify record keeping. You can record how much fuel you use; dēzl routinely archives the number of miles driven in a given province or state. Transfer the information to your PC and use to fill out forms, tax materials and logbooks.
- Bluetooth capability allows this system to be fully compatible with your phone or mobile devices
- Active trip and maintenance data on this system help you capture and retrieve all your necessary records
- Large 7” display is easy to read
- Can be configured to give directions for cars, medium duty trucks, or full truck and trailer rigs.
- Cannot accept destination coordinates by longitude and latitude, only by street address. This makes this system slightly less useful for those in the construction industry.
- Not always a reliable unit. It sometimes stops working, the screen goes black, or it refuses to update
- Doesn’t always choose commercial routes for commercial vehicles, despite vehicle profile information
TomTom is another famous brand in GPS systems and a very early innovator in consumer GPS technologies. The 50M boasts TomTom’s famous enormous map database, the IQ Routes system, along with daily updates from the Map Share community.
- 0″ Touch Screen
- Lifetime Map Updates in
- Fuel Prices: find the lowest gas prices by location & price
- Advanced Lane Guidance: highlights the correct lane and lets you know you precisely which lane to take before you approach a difficult intersection, exit, or turn —so you can remain on the right path.
- Your pre-installed map has Points of Interest, from gas stations to hotels, so you’re sure to find what you want. You can also download additional POIs from TomTom HOME.
routes: The world’s main database of real travel times is incorporated into all TomTom devices. Which means you’ll get the fastest routes and most accurate arrival times. It’s genius!
- EasyPort Mount—folds with the device into your pocket
- Comes with a USB Charger
- Comes with the adhesive disc for the EasyPort Mount system
- USB chargeable device
- This GPS system is designed for cars, not for trucks
- In the past, TomTom has sold “lifetime map” units but then stopped honoring the lifetime updates and required users to buy newer technologies
- TomTom products appear to have declined in quality and reliability over the years
The right GPS system saves you time, makes your driving more efficient, and is a safety precaution when needed. When regularly driving a truck, RV, or any vehicle with specialized needs or restrictions, it’s important to choose a GPS that can accommodate the specific needs of your vehicle, so that the system doesn’t send you on a route you can’t finish, wasting time and potentially creating hazards. Make sure to get the best system for your needs, and choose a reliable brand.