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Alain Kornhauser GS ’71: Like “a V8 engine on a roller skate”

When Ben Klaber ’06 first asked professor Alain Kornhauser GS ’71 to help him sponsor University participation in an autonomous car race in 2004, the popular operations research and financial engineering professor answered with a characteristically humorous reply.

“I said, ‘Ben, don’t interrupt my lecture.’ Just kidding. I said, ‘Ben. This is Princeton. Look at your fingernails. Is there any dirt under your fingernails? Princeton students don’t do hardware. We do equations. We don’t get our hands dirty.’ ”

But when Klaber proved persistent, Kornhauser helped him enlist a talented team of faculty and students that performed competitively alongside other teams the following summer.

“I never had more fun in my life,” Kornhauser said.

Kornhauser’s love of transportation was fueled by the 1969 moon landing and technological innovations of the 1960s. Working his way through a bachelor’s, master’s and, ultimately, a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Kornhauser has become an international pioneer in the transportation industry by restructuring railroads, advancing the first turn-by-turn Global Positioning System and working with autonomous vehicles — all the while building up his own company, ALK Technologies.

He has also earned the admiration of thousands of undergraduate students he has advised and instructed in his 41 years of teaching at the University.

More recently, when the University proposed the relocation of the Dinky station in 2006, Kornhauser did not hesitate to utilize his vast knowledge of transportation and personal rapid transit to offer alternate proposals, which included automating the Dinky and routing it through underground tunnels.

The more than 15 colleagues, students and friends interviewed for this article all painted a picture of Kornhauser as an entrepreneur, transportation aficionado and enthusiastic mentor who has given back to the community and to the world on multiple levels.

A child of the space race

Born in France to a French mother and a Ukrainian father in 1944, Kornhauser emigrated with his parents to America at the age of seven and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. His father worked as a welder, and his mother was a homemaker.

Kornhauser recalled feeling inspired as a child by talk that men would someday reach the moon. Immersed in the spirit of the 1960s and the popular fascination with the space race, Kornhauser enrolled at Pennsylvania State University in 1962. There, he worked on a variety of experiments related to wind tunnel dynamics while also waitering, and earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1966. He followed up with a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Penn State in 1967.

When Kornhauser began a Ph.D. program in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton in 1967, he kept his nose mostly in the books. As a married graduate student he focused on his studies and found the overall graduate experience “boring,” he said.

“Graduate students just don’t party like undergraduates,” he said. “It was boring. I think the [graduate experience] ends up being substantially more one-dimensional towards the academics at hand, rather than what we hope for all undergraduates, where you do not only have academic rigor, but you also have a second dimension associated with your personality, whether that’s athletics or dance or whatever you’re involved with.”

Yet, Kornhauser did recall several exciting experiences in working with the University’s Aerospace Systems Lab Team, at one point supporting the trajectory analysis for the Apollo 12 mission. He watched the first televised liftoff of the Apollo 12 lunar module from the surface of the moon in amazement from a room in the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1969.

At Princeton, he studied mechanical and aerospace engineering and wrote his dissertation, titled “Optimal Astronautical Guidance,” under professor Paul Michel Lion.

Lion could not be reached for comment by press time.

By the time Kornhauser graduated in 1971, he had decided to turn his attention more closely to urban transportation after sensing a very different attitude towards aerospace explorations and adventures to the moon in the 1960s.

“What else goes from A to B? That got me involved in automated transit systems,” he said, explaining his thought process after the end of the first space race in 1969. “[The idea was that] we’re basically going to take technology that brought us to the moon and take it to the cities and save the cities.”

Once he finished graduate school, Kornhauser taught at the University of Minnesota. Even before Princeton, he had been attracted by the lifestyle professors led and the intellectual freedom their jobs gave them. Kornhauser’s sister was a teacher, and he recalled that his father had thought highly of the teaching profession, though he himself never had the opportunity to obtain formal schooling. The process of being able to perpetually ask questions and find solutions was what attracted him to academia, Kornhauser said.

“As you start answering one question, you uncover three more,” Kornhauser explained. “It’s almost an explosive growth in things you have to do.”

A passionate teacher

After a year and a half in Minnesota, Kornhauser returned to the University to teach in the Civil and Geological Engineering department in 1972. Since then, he has held a variety of positions in academia — including stints as the director of the Interdepartmental Transportation Research Program, co-director of the Center for Transportation Information and Decision Engineering, and an affiliated faculty member of the Wilson School — that have made him a permanent and respected figure in the University.

He is best known among students for teaching ORF 467: Transportation Systems Planning and Analysis and ORF 401: Electronic Commerce. He has also provided leadership for the 2005 and 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Challenges, which are international autonomous vehicle competitions that included teams from high schools, universities and organizations worldwide.

Perhaps more impressive than Kornhauser’s curriculum vitae is the reputation he has gained among his students for his engaging teaching style and capacity to inspire awe in transportation systems. Former students and colleagues interviewed for this article remember him as a colorful character who demonstrated genuine interest in the personal growth and ideas of all the undergraduates.

Kornhauser’s commitment to his students was evident even in his early days as a teacher, according to Jon Raggett ’66 GS ’71, Kornhauser’s former office mate in the civil engineering department from 1967 to 1970.

“He is very much a people person, very involved and excited to a large extent by the openness and innovative ways of the undergraduates,” Raggett said.

Craig Philip ’75 recalled that he met Kornhauser during his first year on the faculty. As a result of Kornhauser’s guidance, Philip decided to major in civil engineering with a focus on transportation systems. He praised Kornhauser’s “all-in” attitude with the undergraduates he taught, adding, “I latched onto him and he latched onto me pretty hard.”

“He’s managed to maintain a conductivity over the course of multiple generation of students, which I can’t think of any other faculty member that I’ve connected with at Princeton or my graduate work at MIT,” Phillips explained, noting that Kornhauser holds an annual dinner for all of his past students and alumni. “Nobody takes the time and energy to kind of stay connected with the students that he does.”

For other students, Kornhauser’s success in business proved a model to emulate. Rob Hill ’84 wrote his senior thesis under Kornhauser and worked as a consultant for ALK Associates for about a decade after graduation. He said he appreciated Kornhauser’s creative approach to business problems.

“He’s always pushing the envelope in terms of concepts,” Hill said. “The thing I like about him is that he doesn’t say ‘No way’. He says, ‘Why not?’ ”

Students also remember Kornhauser for his tendency to push students to reach their potential. Marian Ott ’76 said that Kornhauser didn’t treat her any differently from the male students, despite the fact that women engineers were extremely rare at the time.

“It would have been easy for Alain to keep us at Princeton for our graduate work, and it would have helped his own projects, but he wouldn’t let us stay because that was not the best for us,” she said, recalling Kornhauser had encouraged her and Philip to attend graduate school elsewhere. “So he pushed his little chickies out of the nest.”

One of Kornhauser’s more recent students, Gordon Franken ’08, said Kornhauser is clearly driven to create an extraordinary experience for his students. “He wasn’t involved for his own fame or glory,” he added.

But Kornhauser’s relationships with students weren’t a one-way street. He said many students have changed his life, noting in particular his friendship Henry Posner III ’77, who was a railroad buff and introduced himself to Kornhauser at a transportation picnic in 1973.

“He comes up to me, and he has on his steel coach shoes and a pair of khakis almost hiked up to his knees,” Kornhauser said, recalling his impression of Posner at their first meeting. “He has a blue blazer on and introduces himself as Henry Posner III. He has a business card and on it said ‘ferroequinologist’, student of the iron horse.”

Students like Posner fostered Kornhauser’s then-nascent interest in railroads, he said, later leading him to work on restructuring the railroads of North America to make them profitable again.

For Posner, attending the University and studying in the transportation program constituted a turning point in his life. He appreciated learning how railroads functioned from Kornhauser’s academic perspective, which supplemented the knowledge he’d acquired as a rail enthusiast. Their exchange of perspectives enhanced their friendship as well, Posner said.

Reflecting on his teaching style, Kornhauser said he tries to engage his students by being perfectly up-front with them. But his straightforward teaching mantra — “Facts are facts. Let’s face the facts and let’s see where that leads us” — didn’t prevent Kornhauser from infusing his teaching with his sense of humor or from laughing at himself.

His most embarrassing moment in the classroom, Kornhauser recalled, involved an Onion article about a new circular keyboard that he believed was real. As he excitedly discussed the fake keyboard’s input devices and the process of converting information in the brain to a computer, he noticed his students giggling.

“I was asking them what they thought of it and to me, it seemed a little goofy. At the end of this, they all broke out in laughter and said ‘Professor Kornhauser, that’s not real.’ I don’t think it was on April Fool’s but it would have been a perfect April Fool’s. I used the learning experience.”

A major innovator: driving the transportation industry

In the decades since his graduation from the University, Kornhauser has transformed himself into an international leader of the transportation industry. Spearheading successful efforts to revive the railroads from the 1970s onward, Kornhauser went on to market the first GPS in the world and other groundbreaking software through his company.

In 1975, Kornhauser built the first digital map representation of the nation’s railroads in the Northeast, a project which eventually produced his famous network model. The project involved a team of undergraduate and graduate students from various universities as well as railroad officials themselves. Building a database of the railroad system and constructing a plan involving economic analysis as well as traffic flow, Kornhauser used analytical techniques to determine which aspects of the railroad businesses were beneficial or detrimental to the profitability and success of the industry.

Kornhauser’s work spanned decades, from the mid-1970s to recent years. But no one’s accused him of being outdated.

“You’d think there would have been evolution between the ’70s and 2013, but Europe has nothing like what Princeton had back then,” Posner said, praising Kornhauser’s network model. “No one’s come up with anything better.”

In 1979, Kornhauser and his wife, Katherine, founded his company, which soon gained specialized in improved transportation, standards of living and information technology.

Through ALK Associates, the Kornhausers and their employees went on to achieve the unprecedented, including releasing the software PC*MILER in 1986, which quickly became the transportation and logistics industry standard for routing, mileage and mapping information and data. PC*MILER, since its release, has gained the patronage of nearly all the most successful vehicle and transportational carrier firms in the nation, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, according to the company’s website.

In 1995, ALK Associates released in CD-form Road Trips Door-to-Door, the first desktop driving directional software. This served as the impetus for Kornhauser’s later work with CoPilot, the first GPS that utilized the “dynamic route recalculation” feature within vehicles.

Two years after the company was renamed ALK Technologies in 2001, it released CoPilot Live, which made its name as the first live GPS system that, according to the company’s website, improved the already existent turn-by-turn navigation system with access to real-time data and an online location sharing software. Meanwhile, ALK Technologies proceeded to open an office in London and build up its global name, releasing PC*MILER|Europe, now PC*MILER|Worldwide, in 1997.

Since then, the GPS has become a daily tool for millions of Americans, as well as a ubiquitous feature of luxury cars.

Kornhauser serves on the board of ALK Technologies as well as several other organizations, including the Advanced Transit Association and the Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering group.

Part of the impetus for his transportation research came from the fact that he considers the act of driving boring and unnecessary, particularly when people could be spending their time on more productive ventures, Kornhauser said.

Nowadays, Kornhauser spends much of his time seeking to advance the emergent field of autonomous vehicles, a primary research interest fostered by his longtime passion for personal rapid transit.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if there’s like a limousine waiting for you and you hop in and it takes you where you want to go? There’s a computer right there doing it, which is a heck of a lot of cheaper to pay for than a limousine driver,” he said.

“That’s where the revolution comes in. Since I couldn’t save the Dinky, I’m going to save the cities with automated vehicles,” he added, referring to his unsuccessful challenge of the University’s plans to relocate the Dinky train from its old station spot.

Dr. Ingmar Andreasson, a colleague who first met Kornhauser through the Advanced Transit Association in the early 1990s, has worked with him on a research proposal about collision avoidance that is currently pending for funding. He described Kornhauser as a “brilliant” and “contagiously” enthusiastic figure in transportation research who could always hold a good discussion, even when he disagreed with another’s view.

Active in research, Kornhauser is also a member of various associations, including the Advanced Transit Association, a nonprofit organization that works to benefit society through better transportation.

Kornhauser is also a dedicated attendee of the annual Transportation Research Board Conference in Washington, D.C. Dr. Stanley Young, a research engineer for the University of Maryland, remembered he ran into Kornhauser by chance at a Chinese restaurant six years ago and started chatting about personal rapid transit, a topic that led Kornhauser to “immediately [light] up.”

“He’s nationally recognized,” Young said of Kornhauser’s accomplishments. “He’s an ideal leader in the field, not afraid to get out front and get the ideas on the table.”

Although many of Kornhauser’s landmark contributions were made before the era of the Internet, Posner said that Kornhauser’s various interests and projects that began as far back as the ’70s are still making a difference in the world today.

“He’s like a V8 engine on a roller skate,” Posner said, noting Kornhauser’s intellectual vitality. “He doesn’t slow down. He’ll never slow down.”

An ardent advocate for the Dinky

Kornhauser’s passion for improving the transportation systems around him found a new outlet in 2006, when the University announced an initiative called the Arts & Transit Project to expand the creative arts community on campus. He became a vigorous opponent of one aspect of the plan, which required restructuring the Dinky train’s route and relocating its terminus in order to build the new Lewis Center for the Arts adjacent to McCarter Theatre.

While Kornhauser said he fully supported the University’s endeavors to build an arts community, he explained that he felt very strongly that the Dinky’s relocation was not the sensible decision of an architect, but rather the arbitrary decision of a bureaucrat.

“I can’t imagine an architect proposing at this time in the world to desecrate the transit system for an access road to a parking garage. I mean, it’s ludicrous,” he said.

Instead of relocating the Dinky farther away from campus, Kornhauser believes the transit plan should have moved it closer to the center of campus and to the town. This is because many of the riders on the Dinky are faculty, students and people who work on Nassau Street who commute to Princeton.

“I have no idea why they wanted to move it … nobody’s ever given a good reason,” Kornhauser said. “It is really the safety of a Forbesian? Sounds a little dicey to me.”

Between 2006 and 2012, Kornhauser attended numerous meetings, testifying to University officials, townspeople and attendees of Dinky meetings and presenting alternate transit proposals which were eventually nicknamed the “Full Kornhauser” and “Half Kornhauser.”

These proposals were made when the general public, in cooperation with the University, was attempting to establish an alternative to shortening the Dinky line. The Half Kornhauser consisted of digging a trench to allow the Dinky to run under Faculty Road to the Station at University Place, at the same elevation as the basement level of the arts complex.

With an underground Dinky from Faculty Road, no pedestrians travelling to and from Forbes would be endangered. Kornhauser believed that an automated Dinky could function 24 hours a day and meet every train at Princeton Junction.

The Full Kornhauser plan lengthened the tunnel all the way to an underground station at Palmer Square on Nassau Street.

Posner also noted his support of Kornhauser’s various efforts to save the Dinky. “We both believed strongly it would be an expensive mistake on the University’s part,” he said.

The Half Kornhauser and the Full Kornhauser were not well-received by the University, according to Kornhauser.  “They thought it was a goofy suggestion. I lost. The station is gone.”

Kornhauser is not officially affiliated with the local group, “Save the Dinky”.

Councilwoman Jo Butler said she was happy that someone had considered alternatives to the current Arts & Transit plan, despite the difficulties of communicating with the University.

“He was willing to put himself out there in what must have been an uncomfortable position because he loves the University,” she explained. “He didn’t intend to be an adversary because he just thought they were doing the wrong thing, and he thought there was a better way.”

Kornhauser is cognizant of the frictions his efforts have caused over the years but continues to believe in the righteousness of his cause.

“It’s a shame that people have misconstrued this as against the Arts development,” he said. “Everyone appreciates the arts and wants it to be on campus.”

Active mind, active lifestyle

When not teaching Princeton undergraduates, building autonomous vehicles and fighting for the Dinky, Kornhauser likes to be active in sports, too.

While his daughter, Laura Kornhauser ’03, played hockey at the University, Kornhauser himself ran marathons. With 13 New York City marathons under his belt, Kornhauser noted that he decided to run a one-man marathon around Lake Carnegie in 2012, after the actual New York City marathon had been cancelled in order to deploy resources more usefully to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

He is currently in his second year as an academic-athletic fellow for the Men’s Hockey Team. In the meantime, Kornhauser has served as league commissioner for the University’s summer softball league, organized within and between various academic departments. He has participated in the league for 46 consecutive years.

Kornhauser’s enthusiasm in the classroom follows him into the diamond, according to Brian Duncan, Princeton Molecular Biology Lab manager and devoted member of the biology department’s softball team, the Dominant Lethals.

“He’s probably the most intense person you’ve ever met,” Duncan said. “It’s amazing because he’s a very successful professor and you get him on the field and he’s just like a kid. He loves it.”

Duncan added that Kornhauser never failed to throw a yearly party for the entire league at his house after the last playoff game in early August.

When asked about his involvement in sports, Kornhauser gave a characteristic reply.

“I’m not really that into sports. I run in the morning because I have to take a shower anyway — might as well be sweaty. I play a little softball and golf in the summer, and it is better than sleeping.”

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