As someone who grew up in the desert Southwest, I feel a kinship with anyone who goes for a long desert ramble for no other reason than to enjoy a nice long ramble. Whether by foot or by car, spending time in nature restores and grounds you, and finding your way around wild places requires parts of our minds and senses that we don’t always use back home in the city. This is especially true now that we’ve been spoiled by digital navigation that helps us find the coffee shop down the street.
At Marie Claire, Whitney Joiner narrates her seven demanding days driving through the desert back-country without GPS or cell service. Part of the U.S.’s first all-female endurance rally, where drivers navigate with only topographical maps, Joiner and her teammate went through some of America’s most challenging arid terrain as they competed against seventy other female drivers. This land of sand dunes and rocky ridgelines presented constant challenges, and drivers added their own. (As Joiner described hers: “I live in Brooklyn! I don’t even have a car!”) But the race was about strategy and endurance, designed by a woman racer with women’s strengths and uniqueness in mind. What Joiner found was the terrifying, exultant beauty of the desert.
Every night, when the scores for the day were posted, we’d land in the bottom four. But wethought we were champions.
All week, the experienced competitors were itching for the final day, when we’d be competing in sand dunes—notoriously difficult to navigate. We woke up that last morning in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes (where Return of the Jedi was partially filmed) to a blazing sun, a high in the 90s, and a range of shimmering white sand mountains towering over base camp.
I didn’t feel particularly ambitious about the dunes, but Jaclyn wanted to attempt some final point-collecting. We caravanned with a few competitors, helping each other find the safest routes, then ate lunch around a green checkpoint, sitting in the shade cast by our vehicles. It was our last green of the rally.
But when I stood up, I saw the top of a blue flag in the recess of a group of dunes to the south. I nudged Jaclyn: “Let’s try it.”
The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.
After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.
These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.
Volkswagen recently admitted to intentionally skirting U.S. emissions controls by installing “defeat devices” in nearly 500,000 vehicles. This scandal has undermined their credibility and profitability. In The Atlantic, Jerry Useem looks at historic precedents in other large organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Ford and NASA to explore Volkswagen’s expensive mistake and the corporate climate that led to it:
The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.
If that comparison sounds overwrought, consider the words of Denny Gioia, a management professor at Penn State who, in the early 1970s, was the coordinator of product recalls at Ford. At the time, the Ford Pinto was showing a tendency to explode when hit from behind, incinerating passengers. Twice, Gioia and his team elected not to recall the car—a fact that, when revealed to his M.B.A. students, goes off like a bomb. “Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall,” he wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics some 17 years after he’d left the company. “I now argue and teach that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall. But, while I was there, I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I remember no strong ethical overtones to the case whatsoever.”
In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Clive Thompson investigated how the rise of autonomous cars, and Americans’ desire to live in more walkable cities, will mean no longer having to set aside vast amounts of land for parking lots. Many articles have offered a utopian vision of our autonomous driving future, but what I particularly like about Thompson’s piece is that he offers another vision of the smaller changes that are likely to come first—like cities eliminating requirements about how much space developers must set aside for cars, or a collective move to autonomous parking:
“You don’t need fully autonomous cars to get big reductions in parking. Already some cars can parallel park themselves. Carmakers could soon produce vehicles that you drive yourself but that, once you’re at a parking lot, you send off to find a space by themselves. Since nobody would need to get in or out of them after they parked, they could position themselves as snugly together as Tetris bricks, fitting far more cars into our existing parking lots and garages. Achieve even this small feat of self-driving, and it could be possible to never build another piece of parking, says Samaras, the Carnegie Mellon engineer.”
This story by Suzanne Snider—which details the fantastical rise and fall of John DeLorean, a former titan of the American automotive industry—first appeared in the June/July 2006 issue of Tokion. Snider is the founder/director of Oral History Summer School, and she is currently completing a nonfiction book about rival communes on adjacent land. Our thanks to Snider for allowing us to feature it on Longreads. Read more…
In a recent issue of Maclean’s, Anne Kingston tackled the sociology—and potent symbolism—of those cartoon stick figure decals you see affixed to the back windows of SUVs the world over. “Few trends,” she argues, “reveal shifting family values in a mobile, personal-branding-obsessed society as do family stick figures.”
From the piece:
Between those extremes, a create-your-own-stick-family narrative has emerged. Sociologist Lisa Wade, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, sees stick-figure families and their evolution as a profound cultural marker: “They’re so trivial, yet so powerful,” she says. “Their story suggests we do still have a family ideal, a norm.” At the outset, stick-figure families seemed to “represent what we’re allowed to be proud of,” Wade says. “They were strongly hetero-normative and supported the idea of having children.” That they showed up on SUVs first is predictable, she says. “When people have four kids, their entire life tends to revolve around their family; that’s their identity—so an opportunity to advertise family-orientedness is appealing.”
What interests Wade most is the blowback to “traditional” stick-family families, from people like Pavlovic. “This is activism happening, when you see couples with no children put decals of two people and piles of money on their cars, or women choosing to put a figure of a woman with a cat, or six.” Identifying yourself as a same-sex couple is another form of resistance, Wade says: “It’s very visible. They’re not coming out to somebody; they’re coming out to everybody.”
Let’s be honest: Humans never should have been allowed behind the wheel in the first place. There’s so much that can go wrong, so much room for negligence—it’s incredible to think that we managed human-controlled cars for as long as we did.
Here’s a reading list covering the past, present and future of transportation.Read more…
In 1924, recognizing the crisis on America’s streets, President Herbert Hoover launched the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety. Any organizations interested or invested in transportation planning were invited to discuss street safety and help establish standardized traffic regulations that could be implemented across the country. Since the conference’s biggest players all represented the auto industry, the group’s recommendations prioritized private motor vehicles over all other transit modes.
Norton suggests that the most important outcome of this meeting was a model municipal traffic ordinance, which was released in 1927 and provided a framework for cities writing their own street regulations. This model ordinance was the first to officially deprive pedestrians access to public streets. “Pedestrians could cross at crosswalks. They could also cross when traffic permitted, or in other words, when there was no traffic,” explains Norton. “But other than that, the streets were now for cars. That model was presented to the cities of America by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which gave it the stamp of official government recommendation, and it was very successful and widely adopted.” By the 1930s, this legislation represented the new rule of the road, making it more difficult to take legal recourse against drivers.
“The Dodge brothers already made two fortunes from their relationship with Ford, by 1913 they were not thrilled about continuing to make parts for the Model T. Ironically, by the time the T started selling in really huge numbers in the nineteen teens it was obsolete and being technologically surpassed by by more modern cars. The Dodges were good engineers, probably the best machinists in Detroit next to Henry Leland. The term ‘mechanical genius’ could have been coined for Horace Dodge and his brother John was almost as adept with his own management skills. By 1914 the Dodge brothers, who already owned and operated what was probably most advanced automotive plant in the world in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, wanted to build modern machines.
“Not only were they tired of dealing with Henry’s eccentricities, and tired of building an old fashioned car, they knew that they were increasingly vulnerable having such a big customer, a customer that had already started making many components himself, on his path to making FoMoCo perhaps the most vertically integrated manufacturing company ever. One reason why people don’t know about the Dodges’ role in Ford history is because Ford was later famous for making every part of their cars, including the raw steel and glass. In the early days, though, Ford, like most automakers then, was an assembler, buying components and subassemblies. The Dodges supplied other automakers like Cadillac and Oldsmobile, but Ford represented the lion’s share of their business. So the Dodges had plenty of reasons in 1913 to jump before they were pushed and in July of that year they gave Henry Ford a year’s notice that they’d no longer be supplying him. Soon, the automotive world was abuzz with the news that Dodge Brothers would be making a Dodge car.”