Humans perceive self-motion using a combination of sensory information from their visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems. Of these, the primary determination is made by the vestibular system, comprising the semicircular canals, which sense changes in rotation, and the otoliths, which are sensitive to horizontal and vertical forces.

Today’s iPhones are packed with a full complement of sensors that includes cameras, barometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and accelerometers. Like humans, they use permutations of different sensory information to make determinations about their position and orientation, often by means quite similar to our own biomechanical processes.

Making sense of sensory inputs — no matter their origin — is challenging. There’s just so much information to consider. (Heck, it took our species a few million years to get that right, and we’re still confused by newfangled inventions like elevators, planes, and roller coasters.)

After several major OS releases and hardware versions, Apple devices have become adroit at differentiating between different means of locomotion. But before you run off and try to write your own implementation, stop and consider using the built-in APIs discussed in this week’s article.

On iOS and watchOS, CMMotionActivityManager takes raw sensor data from the device and tells you (to what degree of certainty) whether the user is currently moving, and if they’re walking, running, biking, or driving in an automobile.

To use this API, you create an activity manager and start listening for activity updates using the startActivityUpdates method. Each time the device updates the motion activity, it executes the specified closure, passing a CMMotionActivity object.

let manager = CMMotionActivityManager()
manager.startActivityUpdates(to: .main) { (activity) in
    guard let activity = activity else {

    var modes: Set<String> = []
    if activity.walking {

    if activity.running {

    if activity.cycling {

    if activity.automotive {

    print(modes.joined(separator: ", "))

CMMotionActivityManager is provided by the Core Motion framework. Devices that support Core Motion are equipped with a motion coprocessor. By using dedicated hardware, the system can offload all sensor processing from the CPU and minimize energy usage.

The first of the M-series coprocessors was the M7, which arrived in September 2013 with the iPhone 5S. This coincided with the release of iOS 7 and the Core Motion APIs.

Feature Drivers

Possibly the most well-known use of motion activities is “Do Not Disturb While Driving”, added in iOS 11. Automotive detection got much better with the introduction of this feature.

Beyond safety concerns, some apps might change their behavior according to the current mode of transportation. For example, a delivery service app might relay changes in motion activity to a server to recalculate estimated ETA or change the UI to communicate that the courier has parked their vehicle and are now approaching by foot.

Traveling Without Moving

CMMotionActivity has Boolean properties for each of the different types of motion as well as one for whether the device is stationary. This seems counter-intuitive, as logic dictates that you can either be walking or driving a car at a given moment, but not both.

This point is clarified by the CMMotionActivity documentation:

The motion-related properties of this class are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it is possible for more than one of the motion-related properties to contain the value true. For example, if the user was driving in a car and the car stopped at a red light, the update event associated with that change in motion would have both the cycling and stationary properties set to true.

Wait, did I say clarified? I meant… whatever the opposite is. (I’m pretty sure this should be automotive) Fortunately, the header docs tell us more about what we might expect. Here are some concrete examples of how this API behaves in different situations:

Scenario 1: You’re in a car stopped at a red light

🚶‍ walking 🏃‍ running 🚴‍cycling 🚗 automotive 🛑 stationary
false false false true true

Scenario 2: You’re in a moving vehicle

🚶‍ walking 🏃‍ running 🚴‍cycling 🚗 automotive 🛑 stationary
false false false true false

Scenario 3: The device is in motion, but you’re neither walking nor in a moving vehicle

🚶‍ walking 🏃‍ running 🚴‍cycling 🚗 automotive 🛑 stationary
false false false false false

Scenario 4: You’re a world-famous detective, who, in the process of chasing a suspect down the corridors of a moving train, has reached the last car and has stopped to look around to surmise where they’re hiding (perhaps that conspicuous, person-sized box in the corner?)

🚶‍ walking 🏃‍ running 🚴‍cycling 🚗 automotive 🛑 stationary 🕵️‍🇧🇪 poirot
false true false true true true

(We’re actually not sure what would happen in that last scenario…)

The overall guidance from the documentation is that you should treat stationary to be orthogonal from all of the other CMMotionActivity properties and that you should be prepared to handle all other combinations.

Each CMMotionActivity object also includes a confidence property with possible values of .low, .medium, and .high. Unfortunately, not much information is provided by the documentation about what any of these values mean, or how they should be used. As is often the case, an empirical approach is recommended; test your app in the field to see when different confidence values are produced and use that information to determine the correct behavior for your app.

Combining with Location Queries

Depending on your use case, it might make sense to coordinate Core Motion readings with Core Location data.

You can combine changes in location over time with low-confidence motion activity readings to increase accuracy. Here are some general guidelines for typical ranges of speeds for each of the modes of transportation:

  • Walking speeds typically peak at 2.5 meters per second (5.6 mph, 9 km/h)
  • Running speeds range from 2.5 to 7.5 meters per second (5.6 – 16.8 mph, 9 – 27 km/h)
  • Cycling speeds range from 3 to 12 meters per second (6.7 – 26.8 mph, 10.8 – 43.2 km/h)
  • Automobile speeds can exceed 100 meters per second (220 mph, 360 km/h)

Alternatively, you might use location data to change the UI depending on whether the current location is in a body of water.

if currentLocation.intersects(waterRegion) {
    if activity.walking {
    } else if activity.automotive {

However, location data should only be consulted if absolutely necessary — and when you do, it should be done sparingly, such as by monitoring for only significant location changes. Reason being, location data requires turning on the GPS and/or cellular radio, which are both energy intensive.

CMMotionActivityManager is one of many great APIs in Core Motion that you can use to build immersive, responsive apps.

If you haven’t considered the potential of incorporating device motion into your app (or maybe haven’t looked at Core Motion for a while), you might be surprised at what’s possible.


Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome.

This article uses Swift version 4.2. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

Written by Mattt

Mattt (@mattt) is a writer and developer in Portland, Oregon.

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