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PDA GPS Navigation: TravRoute CoPilot

    by Douglas Dixon

GPS Navigation - TravRoute Database - Alain Kornhauser
ALK Associates - CoPilot - The Future

See also Wireless Navigation with ALK CoPilot  (12/2003)
See also PDA Travel & GPS Navigation Products

It's a beautiful summer day in Princeton, and the top is down on Alain Kornhauser's white Mercedes convertible. We're ready to take a ride from Herrontown Road to Hopewell, but not sure how to get there. No problem: Kornhauser is founder and CEO of ALK Technologies, Inc., and he has brought along the new version of his TravRoute division's Pocket CoPilot GPS navigation product. "I've put a 117,000 miles on this car testing CoPilot," he says.


The Pocket CoPilot software is installed on Kornhauser's Casio Cassiopeia PocketPC handheld, along with a database of all the local streets throughout New Jersey and into parts of the adjoining states. The PocketPC handheld is now clipped to his dashboard, and connected to a small disk-shaped GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver about three inches in diameter mounted near the windshield. Total cost to a consumer: Under $800, including $400 to $500 for the handheld PC and $300 for the CoPilot software and the GPS.

To tell CoPilot our destination, Alain taps a button on the handheld's screen to bring up a form, and then enters the "NJ" state abbreviation by tapping on a small keyboard area at the bottom of the display. He then taps in the first letters of "Hopewell," and CoPilot searches its database and displays the matching towns in the state, so he only needs to tap once more to select it. Finally, he enters the destination street address.


This is the magic of CoPilot: it figures out the trip routing automatically, and updates the route on the fly as you go. There's no separate operation of planning a route on the Web or on a desktop computer, and then downloading it to the handheld. You just enter your destination, CoPilot uses the GPS system to find your current location, and it figures out the route itself. "This is our interest," says Kornhauser, "not planning your summer vacation on the desktop, but in-vehicle route guidance with dynamic feedback, providing suggestions as you drive."

So we're heading to Hopewell to try out CoPilot. When we get in the car, Kornhauser unclips his handheld from his belt, plugs in the GPS unit, and slips it into the mount on his dashboard. In less than a minute, CoPilot has sorted though the signals from several different GPS satellites orbiting above us, and was displaying our current location. As we head out of the parking lot, CoPilot advises us of the first turn on our route ahead. The instructions: "Turn left on Herrontown Road," are displayed in large letters on the handheld's screen, along with an arrow to help show them at a glance. CoPilot also speaks the instructions out loud, so you do not even need to look at the screen.

But Kornhauser is not interested in following instructions; he has other plans for this trip, so he turns right instead. Within five seconds, CoPilot alerts us that we've gone the wrong way. Instead of just complaining as we continue on, it is willing to accommodate us, and pauses five seconds while it recomputes the route. Before we reach the end of the block, it has an alternate suggestion for us, "Turn left at Mt. Lucas Road."

This makes sense, and can get us back to the original route, but Kornhauser turns right instead. CoPilot alerts us again, and then once again recomputes a route for us. This time it suggests making a U-turn, since there is no good turn immediately ahead. We drive merrily on, and CoPilot continues to track our position and recompute the route. It continues to suggest a U-turn, but since we are ignoring it, it stops speaking the directions out loud in order not to nag at us.

As we get closer to the end of Mt. Lucas, CoPilot has a new suggestion, "Turn right on Ewing Street." This time, Kornhauser follows its advice, and we're headed to Hopewell again, on a different route.

GPS Navigation

Kornhauser and the TravRoute team have spent a lot of effort simplifying the interface for this new 2.0 version of Pocket CoPilot. "We have removed features that are too hard to use," says Kornhauser.

Pocket CoPilot is about on-the-fly in-vehicle navigation, and not just pre-planned travel itineraries or mapping, or showing your current position as a dot on an overhead map. "Nobody knows how to read maps anyway," says Kornhauser, "and you can't find your place on the small screen." Even more, "It's just not safe; you don't want people reading maps while driving a car." You also do not want to be distracted by pushing buttons to reprogram your route as you drive. With CoPilot, you just enter the destination, and you are done. "It improves safety," says Kornhauser. "It warns of upcoming turns. You do not need to touch anything, or read maps."


As we drive, Pocket CoPilot displays information about the next turn in large letters, filling almost the entire screen of the handheld. It also shows the mileage to the next turn, and the total remaining mileage for the trip. At the bottom of the screen, it displays the name of the road we are currently traveling on (a feature that could make a product all by itself), and a meter showing the GPS signal strength. The informational text is short and to the point, "Turn right" or "Turn sharp right" or "Bear right." It even warns when the name of the road changes ahead.

As we get within 7/10ths of a mile of the next intersection, CoPilot speaks the instructions, and the display changes to pop up a map of the upcoming turn. "It's like the freeway overhead signs of the ramp configuration," says Kornhauser. "It automatically zooms, and is easy to read at a glance." The map shows the layout of the intersection with an overlay of your current position, but is not cluttered with the names of all the streets. "We get killed on that in some reviews," says Kornhauser, "but you do not want to be reading a map." Instead, Pocket CoPilot offers an alternate "Passenger" display, with an overhead map view and the ability to tap on streets to see their names.

We're driving along Cherry Valley Road now, and Kornhauser slows at an intersection as he notices a driver inching out from a side street while distracted by chatting on a cell phone. Meanwhile, CoPilot is quietly updating our mileage until the next turn further ahead at Mount Rose. Kornhauser soon decides that he's in the mood for a longer trip, and pulls over to the side of the road. He slides his handheld off the dashboard, taps on the "Favorites" icon, and selects "Miami, FL" from the list of destinations that he has previously entered.

This is a longer trip, and Pocket CoPilot needs to do some serious thinking. But within a minute it is done. "Turn left on Great Road," it advises, "1253 miles to go." Kornhauser taps the screen to review our itinerary, and then we were off again. Once again, he turns in a different direction, and once again CoPilot recomputes the route. The computation was as quick as before, since it only needed to change the local portion of the longer route to Miami.

TravRoute Database

While the Pocket CoPilot database installed in Kornhauser's PocketPC had local street information only for the New Jersey region, the database also included all major cities, roads, and interstates for the entire continental United States. As a result, CoPilot could navigate us over local roads to the interstates, and from there to Miami or any other general location in the U.S.

The TravRoute database for the entire continental United States is around 2.3 GB (gigabytes, or billion bytes, or characters), which fits easily on a laptop and can be even further compressed under Windows. The local database we are using for New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, part of Long Island, and up to Greenwich, Connecticut is around 80 MB (million bytes). This is too large to fit into the built-in memory of a PocketPC handheld, which is typically specified as 16 or 32 Mb (megabits, or million bits), or only 2 or 4 MB (million bytes). Instead, Kornhauser suggests using 128 MB flash memory cards that can be inserted in the handheld to expand its memory. These are now priced at around $1 per MB, so, on a long trip, you can bring along several cards with different regions stored on them.

The Pocket CoPilot product includes a desktop application to download selected portions of the full database. On a laptop, you can insert the flash card in a PC card / PCMCIA adaptor, and download an entire region in a few minutes. You select the region with the CoPilot desktop software by just drawing a rectangle over a map of the country, or by selecting a city and a 50 mile radius around it, or by specifying a trip route and including an area around the roads and stops. The software shows the total size of the database for the selected region, so you can fine-tune the selection to include a larger region for a side trip, or exclude areas where you are just passing through.

"It's a big country," says Kornhauser, "with almost 7 million miles of roads. We can take you door to door, down to a gnat's eyelash." The TravRoute database includes over 250,000 cites and towns, 2 million points of interest in more than 40 categories, and 15,000 highway exits and services. Each road segment can have up to 155 associated attributes, including street names and address ranges, as well as one-way streets and turn restrictions in over 100 metro areas.

ALK has 15 people dedicated to maintaining and updating its database, drawing on data sources including the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Postal Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. It also maintains contact with many of the 3,000 counties in the U.S. to update new roads and other changes.

ALK also receives corrections and updates from its customers, both commercial and consumer. "The software makes it easy to report problems," says Kornhauser. "It can log information, and customers choose to share with us." ALK receives "more than a couple" of these customer updates a day.

Alain Kornhauser

"I was always a routes from A to B kind of guy," says Kornhauser, "originally from Mars and beyond, doing optimal astronomic guidance." He was born in France, and his parents emigrated to Pittsburgh when he was age seven. He met his future wife, Katherine, at Penn State, and graduated in the Class of 1966 with a degree in aerospace engineering. "I was a Sputnik kid," he says. "It had enormous influence, especially in the public schools, where they decided maybe science and math were important after all."

"It was a gung ho time," he says, "almost like the dot com excitement, but with enormously more substance. It was great to be part of it." Out of 250 freshman who entered the program, only 26 graduated. "I wanted to be a professor," he says, "so I needed a Ph.D.," and so he came to Princeton. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton with the class of 1971, moved to the University of Minnesota in January of 1971, and returned to Princeton in the fall of 1972, where he is currently a professor of civil engineering and operations research.

"The aerospace market collapsed in 1970," he says, "so we applied routing to people movers in cities." In the early '70s he and his students developed interactive graphical tools for designing personal rapid transit systems and computing levels of service.

Then in 1975, New Jersey Governor Florio was looking for help with the bankrupt railroad system in the northeast. "He called up, and I happened to take the call," says Kornhauser. Over that summer, Kornhauser and his students developed a database of the railroad system and developed a final system plan, with traffic flow and economic analysis. He worked with colleagues at MIT and Harvard, and ended up testifying on the Conrail plan in Washington. "I've been 20 plus years working with the railroads," he says.

ALK Associates

Out of this consulting work, Kornhauser started ALK Associates (named for Alain L. Kornhauser) in 1979 ( "Doing railroad traffic analysis was proprietary stuff," says Kornhauser, "and advising a board of directors is not an academic activity."


Kornhauser's wife, Katherine Kornhauser, has been president of ALK from the beginning. She had grown up in Ewing, where her parents worked at the General Motors Fisher Body plant. With her bachelor's and master's degrees from Penn State, she was a mathematical statistician at Educational Testing Service until 1979, when she and Alain co-founded their firm. They have three grown children, a son who is designing server hardware for Compaq, and two daughters, one an artist in northern Maine and the other on the varsity women's ice hockey team at Princeton.

During the academic year Alain spends "a few hours a week" at ALK. "I provide the leadership for the kind of place this is, making it a fun place to work." But, he says, "Princeton is my number one priority." He teaches courses in the civil engineering and operations research department in transportation planning and interactive computer graphics for real-time decision systems. He also is part of a team of professors from engineering, psychology, and philosophy teaching a multi-disciplinary course in human-machine interactions.

ALK Associates first worked with transportation customers like the Union Pacific railroad and the Ohio River Company barge system to design systems to track and optimize the utilization of mobile assets. "You need to anticipate where they are going to be needed, to forecast the future," says Kornhauser.

ALK Associates was renamed ALK Technologies, Inc. in February 2001, and now has 120 employees in three general divisions: the Decision Systems division for business consulting and fleet optimization tools for transportation clients; the commercial PC*MILER product line for transportation industry routing, mileage, and mapping; and the TravRoute division for consumer navigation and mapping products.

In the mid-'80s, "we decided we should have products," says Kornhauser. "The trucking industry needed to compute distances and routes, in a common way between shipper and carrier." This led to ALK's PC*MILER product line, which is used by more than 15,000 motor carriers, shippers, and logistics companies throughout the world ( Now on version 15, the product line includes routing, mileage, and mapping software for North American, European, and worldwide highways, and additional versions for Street-Level, Rail, and Hazardous Materials, and additional tools for graphical mapping, tax reporting, and risk assessment.


"We're the official guys," says Kornhauser. In January 1998 ALK won a five-year contract with the U.S. Department of Defense (competing against Rand McNally, among others), as the worldwide standard distance calculation data and software provider for DoD's Defense Table of Official Distances (DTOD). All North American carriers for the DoD are bound by DTOD mileage for payment and audit purposes, and the system has been extended to European goods movements as well.


In 1995, ALK expanded from commercial to consumer products with its TravRoute Door-to-Door brand of desktop mapping software ( The commercial products computed mileage between five-digit zip codes, but the consumer products went door-to-door, down to a street address. "We were first with the database on one CD," says Kornhauser, "and we sold over a half million copies." But Microsoft entered the market with its Streets product, "sold at CompUSA with an instant rebate," says Kornhauser, "for a net cost of zero." So ALK withdrew from retail sales three years ago, although they still update the product.


The latest release, Door-to-Door 2000, is available in two versions. Door-to-Door 2000 Deluxe ($29) is used to plan trips with door-to-door directions. Door-to-Door 2000 Pro ($99) is used to organize travel itineraries with multiple stops, and generates turn-by-turn directions and maps, complete with mileage and drive time estimates.

But Kornhauser was interested in "going in the vehicle, so you can know where you are every second." The CoPilot products, introduced in 1997, combined the TravRoute software and database with a GPS receiver, on a laptop that could travel in a car. "It's great in a RV," says Kornhauser, "but pretty geeky." A laptop is really not a convenient tool in a car, and "the small laptops have flopped in the U.S. market."


But the introduction of the PocketPC platform in the last year offered the right balance of capabilities and features. "It's somewhat durable, with a color display and a touch screen," says Kornhauser, "It has one-button instant on, and a price point around $500."

Plus, the PocketPC has enough processing power to do the calculations, unlike the Palm platform, which was designed as a simple portable organizer. "You want your PDA to be a Personal Decision Assistant, not just a Data Assistant," he says. On the PocketPC, CoPilot is continually tracking the GPS signals, correlating and matching its location to the map database, updating the display, and dynamically recomputing the routing as needed.

The CoPilot products include CoPilot 2001 for laptops ($399), and Pocket CoPilot for the PocketPC ($299 bundled with a GPS receiver). They have received rave reviews from PC magazines and Popular Mechanics, and have won multiple prestigious awards from the Software & Information Industry Association and at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). "We've sold tens of thousands of copies," says Kornhauser, "and it's just the beginning."

The Future

Kornhauser is looking to the future as part of his research activities at Princeton. He is co-director, of the Center for N.J. Transportation Information & Decision Engineering (TIDE, "Operations Research grew out of World War II," he says. "It has to do with the big problems, Stalinesque five-year plans, military deployment. These are enormously challenging. We have great difficulty in forecasting things, and have seen only moderate success."

TIDE is focused on the individual, "tools for the average person," says Kornhauser, "making every-day decisions about every-day things. Providing a little help with many trivial decisions can become substantial."

TIDE is working toward a future with real-time information about traffic on New Jersey highways and roads, and the condition of the railroads, and the location of all the Jersey Transit buses. "If we can figure out how to make it so people will use it," says Kornhauser, "we can improve lots of people's lives."

The TIDE website, makes an analogy to weather reporting, stating: "In many ways, what the TIDE Center is attempting to do is similar to what has been done in the meteorology industry in recent years (e.g., companies like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel). That is, start with a publicly-provided surveillance system (NOAA satellites in the case of meteorology, GPS satellites and loop detectors in the case of transportation), supplement it with additional surveillance equipment and computer systems (local Doppler radar in the case of meteorology, video image processing and probe vehicles in the case of transportation), use the resulting data to make forecasts of future conditions, develop tools to help people make better decisions in light of these forecasts, and finally distribute these tools and this information either directly to the public or to a news agency."

"This is still five years away," says Kornhauser. "You could be warned about a recent accident, and have real-time traffic information about other roads and alternate routes, parallel tracks. If you could just turn away from congestion, and rely on a system like this to route you around it, that would pay for the system the first time you used it."

"We can see how to do this in transportation," he says, "and maybe we can take it to other contexts, maybe nutrition, or housing."

The TravRoute Pocket CoPilot product is a good start in that direction. Driving away from the ALK offices on familiar roads, I found I already missed the positive feedback that I was on the right road going in the right direction. "Computing routes has been my business for over 30 years," says Kornhauser. "I want CoPilot to help you. It gives advice, it's suggestive."

"I wish my boyfriend were as flexible as Pocket CoPilot," says a user testimonial on the TravRoute website. "I love how it just gives you new directions if you miss the turn instead of yelling at you."