By Henry J. Holcomb
Will smart phones and GPS accelerate commuters toward rush hour's end?
When the Schuylkill Expressway slows to a crawl, difficult decisions arise: Sit there? Or is it early enough in the jam to take an alternative like Ridge Pike? Or is Ridge already clogged?
Two men leaving Center City for a meeting 23 miles away in Wayne a week or so ago faced that decision. One stayed on the expressway and got lucky. The jam cleared sooner than expected, and he got there in an hour. The other took Ridge and arrived in 90 minutes.
Alain L. Kornhauser, a longtime professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University, says he can help.
The 100-person company that he and his wife, Katherine, founded in 1979, ALK Technologies Inc., of Princeton, is bringing his idea to market, joining the ranks of larger rivals with other approaches.
Here's how Kornhauser's idea works: Smart phones, small cell phones equipped with tiny computers, use signals from 24 orbiting Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to compute precisely where the phones are.
That information is sent over the phone's wireless data link to computers that analyze data from thousands of smart phones and determine the traffic velocity on virtually all well-traveled roads. Information about the road ahead is then sent back to individual smart phone users, helping them decide whether and how to alter their routes.
Smart phones equipped with ALK's navigation software and GPS technology are gaining popularity in Europe, but are still pricey on this side of the Atlantic - about $600 per phone.
Kornhauser's idea will work when there are enough in use to provide up-to-the-minute data on virtually every road segment. He says that within five years, there will be enough phones on the road to do the job; he is not sure yet how many that will be.
Drivers who do not like the idea of being tracked need not worry, he said, because ALK's system does not record which person specifically provides each piece of data. "We don't want to know that it is you," Kornhauser said. "All I want is your travel time between points. I'd rather not know if you skirt over the speed limit."
Enough information is already coming in, from 10,000 early users, to build a database that predicts probable speeds on one million segments of U.S. roads for each part of the day.
New versions of ALK's navigation software, coming out this summer and fall, can estimate travel times. If your route puts you on the Schuylkill near Center City at 5 p.m., for example, it will assume a 32-mile-per-hour speed, not the faster, posted speed limit that is assumed by most other navigation software.
ALK's primary focus has been on commercial users - for instance, helping truck drivers plan routes that avoid overpasses they cannot fit under, and bridges with weight limits they would violate.
It sells two major programs, CoPilot Live for consumers and PC-Miler for commercial fleets, both directly to customers and through wireless service providers and device manufacturers. It also sells its product through partners who add capabilities, such as driver time logs and toll monitors.
Ultimately, Kornhauser expects to sell the information from his smart-phone traffic system through wireless providers in the United States, as his company is already doing in Europe.
Several factors are pushing the demand for smarter navigation. Fuel and toll prices are rising. Traffic congestion is increasing. Just-in-time delivery is gaining popularity among companies trying to control inventory costs. And federal safety limits on how many hours a trucker can drive are being more strictly enforced.
Rivals see potential in Kornhauser's notion, but dispute that smart-phone data alone can do the job.
Traffic.com Inc., of Wayne, a major player in the traffic-tracking business, monitors real-time traffic flow in 23 markets using a network of wireless roadside sensors, plus devices installed by government agencies, and data from electronic toll-collection tags in vehicles, such as E-ZPass.
Information from smart phones can provide only a random sample, said Christopher Rothey, cofounder and chief operating officer of Traffic.com.
Traffic.com's sensors provide data on traffic volume and vehicle size, as well as speed, which helps with forecasting, Rothey said. In addition, its operations centers, staffed around the clock, "find what it is causing delays," he said, providing valuable additional information.
If an overturned truck carried hazardous material, for example, cleanup would take longer.
Traffic.com developed its system with the help of a U.S. Department of Transportation contract to provide government planners with traffic-volume and speed information.
It provides its traffic-flow data online for free and also sells information to radio and TV stations for rush-hour traffic reports. In addition, it delivers traffic reports to subscribers via cell phone, wireless PDA, and satellite radio.
ALK remains confident that, within five years, its computers will be smart enough to analyze data from GPS-equipped smart phones and help its customers avoid jams. Its engineers are at work on algorithms to analyze data from moving units and predict velocity hours ahead, as well as give current speeds.
The technology, they say, will eventually be able to analyze data on planned routes and speeds of thousands of vehicles. It will forecast what will be happening on a road segment when you reach it and, in some situations, suggest route changes.
Though the real value is five years away, GPS-equipped smart phones are already effective navigation tools, using computer-generated voices to give instructions at each turn.
Electronic phone books from a laptop computer can be synchronized with smart phones. A destination can be selected by clicking on a name. In traffic jams, pressing a detour button provides an alternative. Miss an exit, and the software automatically revises the route.
Kornhauser, 61, started work that led to this type of technology in the late 1970s, when he was retained by Conrail, the Philadelphia freight railroad that was taken over in 1999 by Southern rivals. His assignment was to forecast the effect of various merger scenarios on freight movement over the nation's rail network.
He later took those computer models to the highway system, adding GPS capability when the military technology became fully available to civilian users a decade ago.
This emerging technology will eventually go beyond just measuring speeds on roadways and spotting problems. It will gradually become smart enough to, for example, check the score and inning of a Phillies game, along with the attendance, and predict the game's impact on traffic.
"It will save a lot of time and money, but it will never eliminate all surprises," Kornhauser said. "And that's a good thing. Life without surprises would be dull."
Fuel costs, commerce, safety - all are pushing demand for wiser navigation.
Some current uses of the Global Positioning System:
Track trucks. When delays cause a driver to run out of legal driving time, a dispatcher uses GPS to arrange a rendezvous with a driver who can complete the delivery on time.
Arrange routes. Companies that deliver heating oil and other products can track vehicles and plot efficient routes to the next stop.
Enhance safety. GPS helps monitor the location of police and other emergency vehicles. Also, systems such as General Motors' Onstar pinpoint the vehicles' location and call for help when there is a collision or other emergency.
Navigate waterways. Members of the Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware bring GPS-equipped laptop computers aboard ships they guide up the river. These units supplement the ship's own equipment and give the vessel's exact location in the deep-water channel.
Some providers of GPS navigation software, services and devices:
Traffic.com, Wayne, provides real-time traffic information compiled from wireless digital sensors and other sources, via broadcast and satellite radio, TV, cell phones and the Internet.www.traffic.com
ALK Technologies, Princeton, develops and markets navigation software for use in computers and cell phones. www.alk.com
TruePosition, Berwyn, develops and markets technology that triangulates signals from multiple cell-phone towers for such uses as giving 911 emergency operators the location of a cell-phone caller. www.trueposition.com
Garmin International, Olathe, Kan., makes and markets navigation and communications equipment for the aviation, maritime and consumer markets. www.garmin.com
Trimble Navigation, Sunnyvale, Calif., develops and markets navigation, asset-tracking and survey technologies. www.trimble.com
Thales Navigation Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., develops and markets Magellan-brand GPS positioning, survey and navigation products. www.magellangps.com/en
Qualcomm, San Diego, provides communications, fleet-management, and navigation systems. www.qualcomm.com