Best of 2013: Unhappy Truckers & Other Algorithmic Problems

When Bob Santilli, a senior project manager at UPS, was invited in 2009 to his daughter’s fifth grade class on Career Day, he struggled with how to describe exactly what he did for a living. Eventually, he decided he would show the class a travel optimization problem of the kind he worked on, and impress them with how fun and complex it was. The challenge was to choose the most efficient route among six different stops, in a typical suburban-errands itinerary. The class devised their respective routes, then began picking them over. But one girl thought past the question of efficiency.  “She says, my mom would never go to the store and buy perishable things—she didn’t use the word perishable, I did—and leave it in the car the whole day at work,” Santilli tells me.

Her comment reflects a basic truth about the math that runs underneath the surface of nearly every modern transportation system, from bike-share rebalancing to airline crew scheduling to grocery delivery services. Modeling a simplified version of a transportation problem presents one set of challenges (and they can be significant). But modeling the real world, with constraints like melting ice cream and idiosyncratic human behavior, is often where the real challenge lies. As mathematicians, operations research specialists, and corporate executives set out to mathematize and optimize the transportation networks that interconnect our modern world, they are re-discovering some of our most human quirks and capabilities. They are finding that their job is as much to discover the world, as it is to change it.

The problem that Santilli posed to his daughter’s class is known as a traveling salesman problem. Algorithms solving this problem are among the most important and most commonly implemented in the transportation industry. Generally speaking, the traveling salesman problem asks: Given a list of stops, what is the most time-efficient way for a salesman to make all those stops? In 1962, for example, a Procter and Gamble advertisement tasked readers with such a challenge: To help “Toody and Muldoon,” co-stars of

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