Space & Innovation

How to Drive Across the U.S., Hitting Major Landmarks

Don't be fooled by imitations.

Last week, I saw a map going around Facebook claiming to be a car route across the United States that hit all of the country's major landmarks. I thought, Hey, neat. But when I looked more closely, I saw quite a few states obviously missing, and I when I did a quick search on Snopes.com, I found that in fact the map was of a route taken in 2001 by photographer Brian DeFrees, who wasn't driving to every major landmark in every state.

But wouldn't it be nice to have a map that hit landmarks in every state and not only that, wouldn't it be great if the map represented the optimal, most efficient route across the country?

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Who could pull off such a map? The first person I thought of was Michigan State University doctoral student Randy Olson.

Earlier in the month, I blogged about the algorithm he devised that helps Where's Waldo fans plot the fastest search path through a two-page illustration to locate the iconic young man. So, I fired off an email to Randy and asked him if he could use his algorithmic talents to plot the optimum road trip route across the United States. He answered yes almost immediately, but requested that I put together a list of the stops first. Sure thing!

After some rounds of emails, the trip wound up having three simple parameters:

I also included Washington, D.C. and added two stops in California to get us to an even 50 stops.

Next, Randy did the hard stuff. He details the challenges of optimizing such a route in this blog. To get around some of those challenges, he used information freely available from Google Maps API and wrote a bit of code to calculate the distance and time it would take to drive between all 50 landmarks, which represents 2,500 individual routes.

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It would take a computer millions of years to account for every twist and turn along a continental drive and give us the absolute best route - one that backtracked as little as possible. But hey, we just don't have that kind of time. So Randy pulled the genetic algorithm card again, which he used for the Where's Waldo solution.

He writes: "Instead of exhaustively looking at every possible solution, genetic algorithms start with a handful of random solutions and continually tinker with these solutions - always trying something slightly different from the current solution and keeping the best one - until they can't find a better solution any more."

The algorithm evaluates whether a solution is good or not based on something called a fitness function. "For the road trip itinerary, the fitness function was the shortest distances between waypoints," Olson told me.

The result is not the absolute best route between all of the landmarks, but rather a route that's pretty darn good.

Here's the map.

And here are the stops, which I think represent nice a mix of history and natural wonder. If you had the road to yourself, it would take 9.33 days of driving, Olson calculates, but in reality you'd need at least 2 to 3 months to make the journey.

In the same blog, Randy added a bonus map that with a route that stops at popular U.S. cities. And here is a map he just did for Europe!

What's great is that you start in any state and as long as you follow the path, you'll be driving the best route. On top of that, many of the destinations are near other great tourist sites, which means you'd better put in for that vacation now.

I asked Randy if he would ever do a road trip like this and he told me that because he's starting out in academia, he might find himself between jobs every two or three years and it's then that he could plan a trip. "At the very least," he said. "I'm going to do it when I get older and retire, buy an R.V. and drive across the U.S."

SEE PHOTOS: Memorial Day Tech for Your Big Road Trip

Here in the States, Memorial Day officially marks the start of barbecuing season, swimming in lakes, attending amusement parks, wearing white slacks and taking serious road trips. With the latter in mind, we've put together a series of gadgets to make your interstate sojourns more fun and easy. Wherever your journeys take you, you'll be better informed, more entertained, powered up and in the know.

Goal Zero Yeti 1250: $1,999.99 Charge the Yeti 1250 for 20 hours through a wall outlet or its dual 30W solar panels and it'll return the favor, powering your phones, tablets, home health care equipment and major appliances. It's got an impressive array of DC, AC and USB ports to plug in your various devices. And this 100-pound backup battery comes with its own roll cart. So in addition to having around the house for emergencies, it's great for camping trips and other outdoor adventures when you're "roughing it."

ION Audio Road Rocker: $119 The Road Rocker is quite the versatile sound system. This portable, rechargeable speaker lets you stream music from a Bluetooth-enabled device. It's got an eighth-inch jack for non-Bluetooth players. And a quarter-inch jack for a guitar or microphone. So you can wail out -- or make loud, pertinent announcements, as the case may be. This 21st century answer to Mr. Microphone will be available starting in August.

Lemur Vehicle Monitors BlueDriver: $39.95 Nothing kills the buzz of a good road trip quicker than that annoying Check Engine light. Stay informed about what's up with your vehicle, using BlueDriver. It plugs into your car's OBD-II port and feeds driving stats and diagnostic info wirelessly to your tablet, phone or computer. A free app helps you identify and clear trouble codes. Inside the app, you can pay extra to add features that freeze frame data, ready you for a smog check, or graph and log live data. Or if you want the whole kit and kaboodle, $49.99 unlocks all current and future features -- which will include ABS, airbag and transmission data.

Supertooth Crystal: $69 The simple, sleek, stylish new Supertooth Crystal Bluetooth speakerphone is so easy to set-up, it's practically grandparent-proof. Once paired, it'll automatically recognize your phone(s) each time you get into your car. (The sound of your door closing triggers it.) When not enabling your phone gabbing, it can stream music or turn-by-turn directions. And not only does it offer great battery life -- up to 20 hours of chat time -- but it can also monitor your phone's battery meter.

Griffin Technology WindowSeat 3 HandsFree: $39.99 For the long journey ahead, you've got your fancy adjustable leather seat with lumbar support...and your phone has the WindowSeat 3 HandsFree. Securely suctioned to the dash or windshield, this 3-point bracket will snugly cradle your trusty buddy in or out of its case. That keeps it at eye level, so you won't have to reach or look far for info. It also has a built-in microphone for fielding calls and comes with an audio cable for plugging into your car stereo's auxiliary input.

Iconosys Alternative Energy apps: Free GasBuddy is fine, but we're not always looking for gas, buddy. So it makes sense to have apps that help us find alternative energy fuels. This directory includes four apps that can help you pinpoint the nearest electric plug-in, bio-deisel, natural gas or ethanol. So drive on and feel good about it!

Roamz: Free Roamz is a community- and location-based app for iOS and (just released last week) Android. It vets such social feeds as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Instagram to give you helpful, current info on restaurants, bars, events and hot spots. It's free, you don't have to check in to use it and it helps you find hidden gems and happenin' places along the way, so you can enjoy them just like a local.

Sceptre E165BD-HD LED HDTV: $199 The 16-inch E165BD-HD LED HDTV works perfectly fine at home, but is just as happy on the road. This thin, light monitor has an ATSC/NTSC/Clear QAM digital tuner, for TV on-the-go. It's also got a built-in DVD player, two HDMI inputs and a USB port, for watching a whole range of stored media in 720p. And most importantly to its mobility, it comes with a car adapter -- plus, it's energy efficient, so it won't drain your battery.

Scosche reVOLT c2: $24.99 Road trips are fun, but tiring -- for both you and your oft-used gadgets. The reVOLT c2 is the smallest and most powerful dual-USB car charger on the market. It pumps 10 Watts and 2.1 Amps into each of its ports. Yep, that's enough to simultaneously charge two big, hungry iPads...or other tablets, phones, music players and the myriad devices one needs on a jag.

Verbatim 8GB Store 'n' Go Car Audio USB: $14.75 This miniscule 8GB Store 'n' Go Car Audio USB is barely bigger than the male USB jack itself, but can hold a couple thousand songs. So load it up from your Linux, Mac or Windows computer and plug it into the USB port on your head unit. You'll have enough tunes to drive straight across the country, no iPod necessary!

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