In 2015, Randy Olson, a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Biomedical Informatics posted “Computing the optimal road trip across the U.S.” on his blog. Olson explains how a colleague, Tracy Staedter from Discovery News, proposed he adapt a fun algorithm he created to predict the location of Waldo in the Where’s Waldo book series. As Olson writes, “One of the hardest parts of planning a road trip is deciding where to stop along the way,” while simultaneously minimizing time in the car.
Olson and Staedter established three ground rules: 1) at least one stop in all 48 lower states, 2) the stops would only include National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, or Landmarks, and, 3) the trip must be taken by car and not leave the U.S. The algorithm soon returned an optimized 13,699-mile itinerary, limiting driving to about 224 hours, which Olson suggests road trippers should spend at least 2-3 months to complete. Among the fifty stops are the Grand Canyon, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Abraham Lincoln’s home, and San Francisco cable cars. For variety, Olson also created a 47-stop itinerary based upon Trip Advisor’s ratings for the best city to visit in every contiguous state. [i]
Olson’s efforts were covered by major news outlets, and hundreds of commenters vigorously debated the merits (or perceived stupidity) of the selected destinations. Such overwhelming attention given to a computer-generated itinerary reveals two things. First, even in the age of low-cost jet travel, the tires-to-pavement road trip remains firmly ensconced as the beloved method for exploring the United States. And, second, road trips and itineraries of the future will no doubt evolve due to innovations in science and technology, including driverless vehicles.
“I envision the road trip of the future to be more like a train ride in a car,” says Wolfgang Juchmann, Vice President of Business Development for AutonomouStuff. His company’s mission is to enable the development of autonomous driving by integrating various software and hardware technologies into automotive perception and by-wire kits. Such kits will not only help to develop Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems, but also fully autonomous features. From a practical standpoint, Juchmann believes achieving full autonomy will require integrating many solutions, including LiDAR, RADAR, optical imaging, GPS, and more all available at www.autonomoustuff.com.
On the road trip of the future, continues Juchmann, the traveler can enjoy the ride while the car gets them to their destination. “If there’s beautiful scenery, I can take the wheel and drive myself. But, for the boring parts or in traffic, I will let the car drive while I relax, read, or communicate via text or phone.”
An excellent example of future road trip possibilities comes from the Great Journey concept vehicles by Honda Motors. Stylistically resembling a blend between German Playmobil toys and Disney’s Cars film series, Great Journey imagines five remarkably cute yet intelligently practical vehicles, each suited to a different real-world road trip. The Safari Drifter (min 2:23) is designed for nearly 1900 miles across eastern Africa from Nairobi to Khartoum—and resembles a classic VW Bus with a pop-up camper. Meanwhile, the Mountain Climber (min 4:03) will take travelers across the Himalayas from Karachi, Pakistan to Shenzen, China—while looking like an airport people-mover crossed with a mining truck. Other vehicles include the Island Hopper (min 4:46), or Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise meets a Boston duck boat; the Tundra Sled (min 5:26), which is half dog sled, half snow-cat; the Jungle Jumper (min 6:41) channels a pick-up truck with a helicopter on top; and the adorable Road Tripper (min 6:03)—gonna say, Oscar-Meyer Weiner-mobile mated with an Amtrak observation car? [ii]
The one Great Journey concept vehicle that most closely matches Juchmann’s prediction for the road trip of the future is the Desert Train (min 3:15). It’s easy to imagine this caravan-style vehicle someday roaming not just the highways of the desert West but all corners of America. Especially given the fact that all components of this 5-part vehicle can now regularly be spotted on your typical U.S. road trip. The tractor-like drive unit is most commonly spotted in roadside agricultural fields. The boxy living unit is cousin to today’s 5th-wheel RV. Here, the classic rural water tower is turned sideways and made mobile in Honda’s water ball. And the standard gear trailer features a 21st century twist with the addition of concert-quality speakers. This isn’t just the road-trip vehicle of the future—it’s Burning Man meets the backroads. (Extra bass available as upgrade.)
Honda’s Great Journey concept is a favorite of Mike Jellen, President and CCO of Velodyne LiDAR. Jellen sees the road-trip vehicle of the future more as a monorail-like viewing platform. “It’s pretty exciting,” says Jellen. “Currently we need [car] lanes for going real fast. In the future, we might need lanes for going real slow.” In such a vehicle, travelers could sit at a table with their family and enjoy the view. Jellen points out that an autonomous vehicle using LiDAR wouldn’t even need headlights—road-trippers could travel at night and enjoy the stars. Plus, Jellen believes there’s even a safety benefit from autonomous road trips. “People speed to stop driving,” explains Jellen. “As soon as you take away the need to drive, there’s almost no need to speed.”
As another example of the potential for autonomous road-trips, Jellen points to the Volkswagen Sedric concept vehicle. Unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show in March 2017, VW offered no time-table for when the fully-autonomous level 5 vehicle might be available to consumers. But the Sedric concept bears a striking resemblance to what is many road-trippers’ vehicle of choice: the minivan. And this suggests that more auto-makers are considering the role autonomy will play in future road trips. [iii]
According to a 2016 survey by the Consumer Travel Association, one relatively new technology is already changing how road-trippers travel. A CTA press release dated November 1st, 2016, states: “Almost all travelers who own a smartphone rely on their devices to enhance their travel experience in several ways… to provide easy access to information and directions, capture pictures and video, and stay in touch with family and friends.” Additionally, the report found that nearly half of respondents prefer travel experiences customized to their preferences.[iv]
Given the near universal adoption of smart phones as an essential tool for traveling, it seems reasonable to expect that, someday, autonomous vehicles will become a key part of the classic American road trip. And those travelers who prefer to explore during the day and drive through the night? They may do so while sound asleep in futuristic living units, which zip peacefully down the highway under star-lit skies.
[iii] “Volkswagen Sedric Concept: From ‘Das Auto’ to ‘Das Automation’?” Pete Bigelow, Car and Driver. March 2017.
[iv] “Tech is Enhancing Our Travel Experiences, Shows New CTA Survey.” Consumer Technology Association, press release. November 1, 2016.