Many Americans dream of one day shedding life’s responsibilities long enough to drive across the country in a sort of great American road trip.
A Michigan college student took that age-old American dream and put a modern spin on it by leaving the heavy lifting to a computer when it comes to planning the most efficient great escape.
Inspired by Tracy Staedter at Discovery News, Randy Olson, a doctoral computer science student at Michigan State University, planned a road trip that includes stops at one major historical or natural landmark in each of the lower 48 states.
“Once those are chosen, the algorithm is basically trying to reorganize the itinerary — it starts with a random one — it continually tries over and over again thousands of times per second to reorganize the itinerary to find the shorter path,” Olson said. “It’s taking advantage of the fact that computers can compute things, like distances for road trips, much faster than we can.”
The algorithm calculated the distance and driving time for 2,500 routes between the 50 landmarks Staedter and Olson chose, coming up with a 13,699-mile route that would take about 224 hours, or nine days, of driving to complete.
Click here for the interactive version
Olson envisions the entire trip–with all of its stops–could take two to three months to complete. The road trip is also designed to allow drivers to start anywhere along the route and go from there.
Olson put the algorithm he used on the web for anyone to use, provided they know how to use the Python programming. And while he occasionally takes paid customer requests for custom maps, he says he isn’t in it for the money.
“I really enjoy communicating the science of machine learning and how it’s relevant to everyday life and can help us solve everyday problems,” Olson said. “It really makes me feel good that it wasn’t time wasted, that it’s not just some silly exercise. It’s actually something relevant that people…want to use and actually improves some people’s lives by either inspiring them to go on a great trip like this or if they were already planning a trip, to make that trip better.”
Olson has planned similar trips for top cities in the United States and for Europe. He also created smaller-scale routes for New York City and the state of Michigan.
Once he receives his PhD next month, if he can secure the funding, Olson hopes to hop behind the wheel and try out his great American road trip for himself, documenting his travels from a data analyst’s perspective.