Comparing GPS Tracking Device Types

Plug-N-Play vs. Hardwired vs. Self-powered

GPS tracking devices come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and features sets. However, you’ll find that there are three main device category types when it comes to their functional installation type. Hardwired vehicle tracking devices that require a three-wire connection, plug-n-play devices that connect directly to an OBD-II or JBUS port, and self-powered devices that run on batteries.

Based on your application and your unique fleet challenges, one of these options will be a better fit for your tracking needs or a combination of all three when you have a variety of fleet applications. To help you determine which device type is most suitable for your needs, here is a list of some of the pros and cons of each GPS tracking device type to help assess your options.


Easy DIY Self-Installation

The Plug-n-Play GPS vehicle tracking devices do not require any hardwired connections and are incredibly easy to install into any vehicle with an OBD-II or JBUS port. The position of these ports can vary between vehicle, make, model, and year, but are typically located in easy to access areas. OBD-II ports can generally be found below the instrument panel inside the cab close to the driver’s knee. JBUS ports are typically found in easy to find locations within the cab of heavy-duty vehicles (often class 6 and above). With these plug-n-play GPS vehicle tracking devices, you simply plug the unit in and you’ll quickly begin to receive data from your vehicles.

Portable Between Vehicles

Because these GPS vehicle tracking devices are so easily installed, it also means that they are easy to move between vehicles. This becomes extremely convenient when it’s time to replace an existing vehicle within your fleet or if there you want to share the device between multiple vehicles depending upon the project they’re assigned to. There’s no need to plan for vehicle downtime to remove the vehicle tracking device from one vehicle and install it into the next. Simply unplug from the old and plug into the new.

Automatically Receive Engine Diagnostics

Plug-n-Play vehicle tracking devices are capable of automatically pulling diagnostic information directly from the Engine Control Module (ECM) because the OBD-II / JBUS ports are integrated with the ECM. No additional installation accessories are required to get this type of information.

Built-In In-Cab Driver Coaching

These vehicle tracking devices come equipped with a built-in beeper that when triggered, releases an audible sound to the driver. The audible alert is used to coach in the moment and inform the driver to correct driving behavior such as speeding, harsh braking, rapid acceleration, or excessive idling.

Easily Installed = Easily Removed

Being that this vehicle tracking device is so easily installed, it also means that they can be easily removed. Most ports are exposed, making the Plug-n-Play devices exposed to the driver. The intent does not even have to be malicious for the device to be removed. An accidental hit from a leg getting in or out of the cab can cause the device to be jarred loose from its position in the port. A Y-cable accessory can be used to install the device further underneath the dash and keep the port free. Furthermore, the software allows you to create an alert that will notify you the moment the device loses power for any reason, including removal from the port.

Vehicle & Engine Data Only

The Plug-n-Play devices are an enclosed box, so there is no harness to connect accessory wires. This means that there are no options for additional types of monitoring such as input monitoring that would let you to know and track the status of additional vehicle information like PTO, beacon lights, plow, doors, etc.


Secure Installation

Hardwired tracking devices require at minimum a three-wire installation of ground, power, and ignition. This positions the tracking device up underneath the dash/hood and out of sight. Additional security just like the Plug-n-Play devices is featured with the ability to create an alert that will notify you the moment the device loses power for any reason, including removal.

Far Beyond Vehicle & Engine Data

With a wiring harness, hardwired tracking devices come equipped with numerous additional inputs/outputs allowing it to do such things such as unlock a door, enable/disable a vehicle’s starter, remotely engage or disengage a motor, as well as monitor when a component is on or off such as a PTO or Beacon Light.

Installation Downtime

Professional installers of hardwired tracking devices usually quote anywhere from 30-60 minutes on average to install hardwired GPS tracking devices. This means that vehicle downtime must be accounted for when you plan to implement a GPS tracking solution.

Secure = Hard to Move

Because these devices are installed to the vehicle, they take 30-60 minutes on average to complete without any accessories. This means that it is not easy or simple to move these types of vehicle tracking devices between vehicles. Just like installation, you must plan for vehicle downtime if you need to transfer a hardwired device from one vehicle to another.


Simple DIY Installation

Self-powered devices are 100% self-contained and self-powered and therefore simple to install. Most come with multiple ways to attach the device to the fleet vehicle, equipment or trailer asset. They are so easy to install in fact that they are sometimes referred to as “slap-and-track” devices. Self-adhesive tape, screws, even magnets are used.

Portable Between Fleet Assets

The simple installation required of these GPS vehicle tracking devices also means they are easily moved, between your vehicles, equipment, trailers or other mobile assets. This is extremely convenient when it’s time to replace the asset or if you want to share the device between multiple pieces. There’s little need to plan for downtime to remove the self-powered tracking device and install it on the next.

Multiple Inputs

With a wiring harness, some self-powered tracking devices come equipped with inputs for additional monitoring capability. An input wire is used to detect a change of state (on/off) for an external component. For example, when a safety light is turned on, a PTO engaged or disengaged, a door contact made or broken, and much more.

Battery Life

Battery life can be a concern in self-powered deployments. Battery life is affected by a number of factors including operating temperatures and the amount of data that is being transmitted to the GPS tracking software. Some devices including a self-powered device offered by AutoConnect GPS supplements the battery with a solar self-charging feature. This allows the device to stay fully operational for long periods of time without having to replace the batteries.

Easily Installed = Easily Removed

Again, being that self-powered tracking devices are so easily installed, it also means that they can be easily removed. There certainly are ways to securely fasten the devices in places that make it more difficult for would-be thieves or vandals but this is certainly a factor that should be considered when making your final decisions regarding the type of device best suited to your needs.


You should carefully weigh these pros and cons when deciding which tracking devices to install on your fleet vehicles, equipment, trailers or mobile assets. For certain applications like trailers and other mobile assets without a power source, it will only make sense to use a self-powered device but in many scenarios, you’ll have options. It’s best to consult with a professional GPS tracking specialist to ensure your rollout the right solution for every fleet asset.

AutoConnect GPS helps you on the path to a safer and more profitable fleet!

Recommended Posts