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Wireless Navigation with ALK CoPilot (12/2003)
by Douglas Dixon
While cell phones and wireless E-mail can help you keep in touch while you are traveling, you still have the issue of getting there: finding -- and following -- the right route through holiday traffic. Today's more powerful handheld devices and wireless connections can help you with your travels as well.
ALK Technologies, Inc. (www.alk.com), the Princeton-based transportation technology company, has been developing products using GPS (global positioning system) technology to track vehicle position and display real-time map position and routing information. ALK sells products including PC*MILER for the commercial transportation industry clients, as well as consumer products under the CoPilot brand, for use on notebooks and PocketPC handhelds.
With today's technology, a PDA in your car running CoPilot can interface to an external GPS receiver, access a database of street-level map information, update and display the current vehicle position, and provide routing directions (both displayed and spoken) for upcoming turns -- all in real time as you drive. In addition, if you need to turn off the route, to take a scenic side road or to detour around congestion, CoPilot automatically recalculates an alternate route for you. Alain Kornhauser, ALK founder and chairman, gives the example of driving in Germany (without speaking the language), and being caught one evening in the rain at a restaurant and using his product to get back to his hotel in Munich. "I never would have attempted it without CoPilot," he says.
With CoPilot on a PDA, even a relatively small 128M flash memory card can comfortably hold street-level map data for an entire region like the mid-Atlantic, plus highway detail for the entire United States. And the notebook version of CoPilot can store local data for the entire U.S. in around 700 MB, or the size of one CD disc. The data for the U.S. includes over 7 million miles of roads, 100 million addresses, and 3 million points of interest.
In spring 2003, ALK introduced its next generation product, CoPilot Live 4, which takes advantage of wireless communication by integrating the PocketPC handheld with a cell phone. Using a wireless Bluetooth connection, you can use CoPilot to upload the current vehicle location to a Web server, exchange messages, and even download updated routing information.
With real-time GPS tracking and mobile communications, real-time tracking is now possible for anybody, whether for a trucking company that needs to monitor its fleet and update the estimated time of arrival for a delivery, or for a family that just wants to know when the out-of-town visitors will arrive. To check the status of a vehicle, connect to the ALK website and enter the tracking number (just like monitoring a shipped package, only the traveler does need to give you the number and choose to share their status). The website then can display the current vehicle location, and estimated travel time over the route.
Another possible use is for services like the Princeton University shuttle system. "I've got to have this," says Kornhauser. "You could mouse over the map and see the schedule, where each shuttle is expected, and where it really is." This freedom from getting uptight from wondering whether and when a shuttle will arrive "elevates the quality of service; the peace of mind may make me a customer."
In addition, the CoPilot provides two-way communication. ALK has built in the ability to send short messages from the website and receive responses, but has carefully designed the system to avoid overburdening the driver. The messages are very short (only a few lines on the PDA display), and the sender can specify up to four possible single-word responses, so the driver then only needs to press a button on the PDA to respond. "The burden is on the sender to anticipate the responses and make it easy to reply," says Kornhauser.
But there's more that can be done with this two-way data path. You also can go to the website to update the travel itinerary, and then send it down to the vehicle. For example, you can add a new stop for a delivery truck, or even completely change the afternoon route. Another use might be to help the driver route around major congestion, which may be obvious to you from television or Web news reports, but less understandable in the vehicle from radio traffic reports.
This is Alain Kornhauser's dream, and frustration. Many states use public money to collect real-time traffic information, especially for major highways, and yet it is not readily available. Radio traffic reports can only provide a stale and incomplete picture of what's actually happening. "It's not appropriate to where you are," says Kornhauser, "It's "traffic-tainment."
In November 2003, ALK announced the first glimpse of how much better this could be done. The state of Minnesota is now delivering real-time traffic and incident reporting as a public Internet feed (in XML format). ALK then harvests this feed to match it to the real-time routing updates received from CoPilot Live, and feeds back traffic alerts to the driver, and even alternate routing around the congestion. "It lets us get started," says Kornhauser, "We're doing it on our own nickel, and giving it away free to try it out."
As more states make this public information readily available, we can imagine systems that can suggest routes based on both historical and current traffic flow information, and dynamically adjust to changing conditions in order to provide for efficient and less frustrating transportation. In 2004 Kornhauser anticipates adding real-time weather information to CoPilot Live (especially useful in Minnesota) based on a data feed from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The CoPilot Live system requires a Bluetooth-equipped PocketPC, such as the HP/Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC H3870, and a Bluetooth-equipped digital cell phone, such as the Ericsson T68i GSM/GPRS. CoPilot Live is available as software only ($229), or bundled with a GPS receiver ($349). With a Bluetooth GPS receiver, you can use the system without requiring any connecting wires. The product includes street-level maps for the continental U.S., and highway-level maps for Canada and Mexico. Maps of Europe and Australia are also available.
With the T-Mobile cell network, the CoPilot Live system does not tie up your phone, so you still can make and receive calls as you travel. The service charges only for the amount of data transmitted, as CoPilot sends regular updates every minute or so, and sends and receives messages as needed.
Kornhauser sees important applications of these services in homeland security. "If you don't know where things are, how can you control them?" he asks, whether in a snowstorm or other emergencies. "Real-time is fundamental for when things are coming apart."
And for businesses such as freight transport, "this is beyond Just in Time," he says. "Just in Time is based on a plan, but if the plan is coming undone, you are required to be in sync," to accommodate the dynamic changes. After all, "if planning really worked, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War."
ALK Technologies, Inc.
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)