A Great American Mobility Success Story – Part 1

It could be said that one of the godfathers of the automated mobility revolution is a professor from Princeton who many know from his podcast, the SmartDrivingCar. Each week, Dr. Alain Kornhauser provides his wisdom and wit to make a serious topic engaging and fun. It is his decades of experience that differentiates Alain from the crowd.

With a transportation background dating back to the Apollo Space program, Kornhauser brings more than a rigorous academic approach to advancing autonomous mobility. In the 1970s, he started a business that became a pioneer in commercializing GPS services for trucking companies. In the 2000s, he led a Princeton-team that participated in the DARPA challenge. 

Dr. Alain Kornhauser also has the distinction of being probably the only Princeton professor who flunked first grade. It is not a surprise to hear of his struggles, given that he was plopped into a 1950s era, sink or swim, Pittsburgh, PA-area school from his native France. It is also not surprising to hear how he quickly adapted and skipped second grade.

Highlights of the above interview, which is the first of multiple parts, include:

  • a thumbnail overview of Kornhauser’s prisoner of war father, who escaped the Nazis, reunited with Alain’s mother and sister, and managed to avoid capture while living in secrecy under the Vichy government.
  • his father’s Budapest-connection who is responsible for Alain and his family’s journey from France to his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh.
  • some of the lowlights and highlights of his academic career which saw him straighten up in the 7th grade and initially struggle in his freshman year at Penn State.
  • inspired by the 1957 launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, he eventually received a Ph.D. from Princeton in aerospace and mechanical engineering.
  • He proudly proclaims that his only regular paychecks have been from his academic career, although there is an asterisk to that statement which will be discussed in a future post.
  • Speaking of asterisks, he might also be considered the Iron Man (Lou Gerhig? or Cal Ripken?) of recreational softball. As the Commissioner of the Princeton Summer Softball League, Kornhauser jokingly claims to rule the fields like the late New York Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner.

It is clear from the description in this article and the way Kornhauser refers to it, that the benefit of this league, like most recreational softball leagues, goes beyond balls and strikes. Simply, it is an excellent way for different groups within the university to socialize, develop relationships, and have fun. One has to think that it also forms interdisciplinary bonds necessary to tackle complex topics, like automated mobility.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where Kornhauser will talk about his career that has spanned spaceships, trains, and trucks.