Randal Olson is a Lead Data Scientist and on his website, he is a self-described specialist in ‘artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data visualization.’ So when a woman by the name of Tracy Staedter from Discovery News messaged him about the most optimal road trip to travel across the United States it almost immediately piqued his interest.
There were several requirements for this specific trip though. The road trip had to stop at all of the 48 contiguous states in the United States and all the stops must be at National Natural Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Parks, or National Monuments and the final and third requirement was that the trip must be done via a car (hence the name ‘most optimal road trip’) and the trip must never leave the United States.
On Randal’s personal blog he wrote: ‘with those objectives in mind, Tracy compiled a list of 50 major U.S. landmarks — one in each state excluding Alaska/Hawaii and including D.C., and two in California.’
Using a certain algorithm, Randal was able to determine the route to all 50 landmarks via Google Maps. He wrote in his blog: ‘if you’ve ever used Google Maps to get the directions between two addresses, that’s basically what we had to do here. Except this time, we needed to look up 2,450 directions to get the “true” distance between all 50 landmarks — a monumental task if we had to do it by hand. Thankfully, the Google Maps API makes this information freely available, so all it took was a short Python script to calculate the distance and time driven for all 2,450 routes between the 50 landmarks.’
Next, Randal and Tracy were confronted with the traveling salesman problem. In order to take the shortest route possible, they must plan their trip beforehand and backtrack as little as possible. Randal employed the use of a genetic algorithm in order to map out the entire trip.
Randal wrote: ‘After less than a minute, the genetic algorithm reached a near-perfect solution that makes a complete trip around the U.S. in only 13,699 miles (22,046 km) of driving. Note: There’s an extra stop in Cleveland to force the route between Vermont and Michigan to stay in the U.S. rather than go through Canada. If you’re able to drive through Canada without issue, then take the direct route through Canada instead.’
Randal went on to conclude by saying that the trip would take an estimated 224 hours worth of driving and should span the course of two to three months. But he did mention that the best part of the trip is that it is ‘designed so that you can start anywhere on the route as long as you follow it from then on. You’ll hit every major area in the U.S. on this trip, and as an added bonus, you won’t spend too long driving through the endless cornfields of Nebraska.’
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