What does a tracker device on your car do?

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When you get a quote for car insurance you’ll be asked if your vehicle has a tracker device – but what exactly do these things do? And why do insurers care? Here’s a quick explainer to get you up to speed.

The science bit

As you’d expect, a tracker device tracks the location of your vehicle using global positioning system (GPS) technology – the kind of tech you also find in sat navs and smartphones. Without getting too technical, GPS is a network of roughly 30 satellites orbiting earth. A tracker device in a vehicle has a GPS receiver which captures signals from three or four ‘visible’ satellites giving details of their location at a given time. Measuring how long it takes for the satellite signal to reach the receiver, based on when the signal was sent, allows the receiver to measure how far away a satellite is. With information on three satellite locations and distances, the device can calculate the vehicle’s location. Add a fourth satellite signal and it can also work out the vehicle’s altitude. Some tracker devices are active and transmit data in real-time on an ongoing basis. Others are passive and need to be removed from the vehicle and hooked up to a computer to review the tracking data.

Why do insurers care?

Trackers come into their own when cars are stolen. Car theft cost the UK £100million in the first three months of 2015, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA). Active tracker devices are useful from an insurer’s point of view because if your car is stolen, it can be tracked down and (assuming it hasn’t been damaged beyond repair) recovered. For this reason, trackers are often installed deep within a car’s mechanical innards, and often integrated into the way the cars runs – that way, a thief either can’t remove the tracker or, if he does, the car simply won’t run. And that’s why international gangs of car thieves have been known to ‘export’ their booty in lead-lined containers, to defeat tracker signals. The NCA recently dismantled a Ugandan car theft ring based out of London, tracking cars stolen in the UK as far as Kenya. You can watch how the sting operation worked in this video:

 

If a tracker device does lead to the recovery of your vehicle, it means your insurer won’t have to pay out for a replacement. Given that insurance quotes indicate how risky an insurer thinks you are (i.e. how likely it is you’ll make a claim and that they’ll have to pay out), a driver with a tracker device on their vehicle will get cheaper quotes than a driver who doesn’t.

Can’t they use my sat nav to track my car down?

Because there’s nothing tying a portable sat nav device specifically to your vehicle, then no. It can be removed and used in any vehicle, or even removed and sold on by a car thief – so there’s nothing to say that the locations of the sat nav and your vehicle are one and the same. Portable sat navs can be registered with immobilise, the UK’s national property register. This means there’s a better chance of a stolen sat nav it being returned to you if it’s recovered.

Top tip: Don’t store your home address in your sat nav’s ‘home’ feature, as it potentially leads thieves directly to your door. If they managed to get your car keys, they could also have your house keys on the same bunch. Some integrated sat navs also serve as tracker devices, but not all do. When you enter your reg into our car insurance quote form, it’ll return all kinds of information about the vehicle – including whether or not it has a tracker fitted. So really, all you need to know is your registration.

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