GPS – The bike theft silver bullet?

by Annie Rider July 25, 2017   Annie Answers

Dear Annie, 

I left my iPhone on the bus last winter and recovered it using the “Find my iPhone” feature from my computer. Seems that doing the same kind of thing for bikes would be the best possible solution to help recover a stolen bike. Why doesn’t 529 just add “Find my Bike” to their app and sell GPS trackers for bikes?

– Satellites Over Land – Very Easy Decision


SOLVED,

I wish it were that easy. Between the chips, antennae, software and billions in R&D that Apple has sunk into the iPhone to pinpoint location, the iPhone is one of the top consumer GPS solutions out there. So, adding a Find My iPhone feature for them was a pretty practical and inexpensive addition – no doubt it’s helped a ton of people who have misplaced their phones.

So what don’t we do it? The short answer is complexity, affordability, vigilantism and impact.

The long answer?

Well, there’s a lot of technical and practical challenges in making GPS work well on a bike:

  • Power consumption / battery life. The iPhone battery is about a third of the volume of the iPhone and half the weight… and you recharge it daily! You’ve also probably also learned that GPS is one of the more power-hungry features of the phone. So, getting a reasonable sized device that has good battery life is a real challenge. It’s important not just to avoid having to always charge your bike, but also to have sufficient battery to track it if it goes missing for a few days.
  • Network providers. Like the iPhone, a GPS tracker is going to need to have cellular network connectivity. There are a lot of different cellular standards and providers that have different coverage maps in North America. The owner is going to want the best coverage in their area for the lowest price. Building one affordable device that can work everywhere and has reasonable data plan costs is a challenge to build and test.
  • Size. Again, the iPhone has a huge advantage here as it is designed around communications and has space for antennae to connect to the cellular and GPS networks effectively. Building a device that is concealable, or reasonably concealable for a bicycle, that performs well is going to be hard.
  • Weatherproofing. Not until the 7th generation iPhone, 10 years later did Apple introduce a water-resistant iPhone. If you’re a Pacific Northwest commuter like I am, you’d appreciate the water, grit, grease and knocks that a bike can take. Any product to help protect a bike needs to be as tough as the bike itself.
  • Performance. Anyone that has worked in the microelectronics space, dealt with EMI challenges and antennae performance will tell you that trying to hide something like this inside a bike frame or handlebar and getting great results is going to be a tricky problem to solve.

So, is it impossible to create an iPhone-awesome GPS tracker for bikes? No. But, you’re going to need a strong team, healthy budget and a lot engineering time and testing. Have a look at the Garmin lineup of bike GPS devices (they make a lot of GPS products for many categories) to get a sense for the size & complexity for a device in this category that meets these goals.

Assuming a budget and team that can clear the technical hurdles, there’s then the practical challenges to consider:

  • Concealment / tamper-proofing. If the thief can easily remove the device and say, toss it into the bed of a pickup, it’s not going to be super helpful. Creating a form factor that can be used with a commuter bike, a triathalon bike, a downhill bike and a cargo bike that satisfies this (and performs well) is not simple.
  • Precision. The precision of GPS is pretty good when it comes to knowing what street you’re on and what direction you’re traveling –  this helps a ton for map applications on your phone. However, it’s not very helpful in a lot of places where stolen bikes often end up. A blue dot over a storage unit, apartment complex or parking garage doesn’t provide the precision to locate the floor, apartment, or storage unit that a bike is contained in. This is why “bait bikes” will also generally be equipped with an RF (radio frequency) solution as well so they can pinpoint a bike’s location.
  • Law enforcement. If you ask experienced law enforcement personnel, you’ll get mixed responses on how they feel about products like LoJack, OnStar and Find my iPhone and how they are to deal with from a law-enforcement perspective (more in a minute). And, unlike a motor vehicle, most bike thefts will be “sub felony” because of the lower value of the bike and impact the prioritization and effort they are willing to put in.
  • Vigilantism. Bike theft can be an emotional crime for victims and having a moving”blue dot” to chase on their phone, for some, may be too tempting to not act on their own. This could lead to a much more dangerous experience and outcome than the initial theft of the bike.
  • Detection. While too commonly, cyclists (and law enforcement) often consider bike thieves as unsophisticated, it is not terribly difficult, or expensive, to detect if a device is broadcasting over a network. Using a scanner, bike thieves can determine if a stolen bike is “transmitting” and likely disable the transmission very quickly.

At this risk of being a “Debbie Downer,” it’s also important to think through the police side of the equation when it comes to getting a bike back based on location information. While an episode of CSI or watching Minority Report might suggest that police cars and officers are all setup to chase moving blue dots on maps, IRL it’s not quite that simple. While I’m not an expert here, I have spent enough time with police to provide a general sense of some of the challenges they might face in helping you.

In general, all agencies are going to require a theft report (with at least a serial number) before taking any action. At that point, they will prioritize the crime relative to other incidents called in. Assuming the provider of your GPS hasn’t worked with your local law enforcement to integrate their software with dispatch (this would be an incredible amount of work), they are going to be relying on you telling them where the blue dot is, and likely wait for you to report that the blue dot has been stationary for some period of time (say, 30 minutes).

Even then, assuming you have an exact address of a single unit dwelling or structure for them to work with, you have the Constitution to consider. The police can’t just break down a door because there’s a blue dot on a bike theft victim’s phone. If the bike is on private property and the owner / resident is non-compliant, they will then need a warrant to enter the premises to search for the bike.  Of course, protocols and procedures vary from agency-to-agency, but as a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t believe that the police are going to download a smartphone app and start chase down a bike thief 3 minutes after your bike goes missing.

In our analysis of this category as something that was a good fit for our company, we decided a few things:

  • First, customer and partners’ safety should be prioritized above all else. We hate the idea that anyone would get hurt over a stolen bike and knew it was impossible to prevent vigilante behavior with a real-time tracker.
  • We didn’t have the budget or experience to tackle this and deliver a high-performance product.
  • Given the practical hurdles, the scope of impact this type of product could have on bike theft is limited, and likely biases the more fortunate riders out there. We wanted our solution to have the broadest possible impact on the most cyclists, regardless of income or value of bike

None of this is to say that GPS on a bike is impossible or not useful. There’s a lot of terrific applications for integrated GPS that I’d  love to see (like mapping, performance tracking, route optimization, safety to name a few), and I’m bullish in particular of the potential when integrated with e-bikes.

10 years from now, it’s quite likely that a large percentage of $1,000 bikes on the market will have integrated GPS as costs go down, manufacturers get onboard and some of the engineering hurdles are overcome by some players who have kept with it. That’s all good news, and I’m definitely looking forward to the  innovations that integrated GPS could bring to cycling.

– Annie

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Annie Answers

Each week 529’s very own Annie Rhyder answers your questions about bike theft and bike security. To get your question featured, drop her a line at: annieanswers@project529.com.