Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 5

Asunción (Paraguay) - Roissy (France) - Chantilly (France) - Paris (France)

This week the key challenges for the cast of The Amazing Race 32 involved driving and navigating in and around Paris. Some teams had difficulty driving stick-shift cars, while others lost hours (six and a half hours (!) in the case of Victoria and Michelle, who finished last and were eliminated) trying to find the sites of their tasks and checkpoints.

While there were differences between the cast members in how well they coped, these were generational issues, not personal failings.

All of the contestants still in the race are between 29 and 39 years old: “millenials”. Their troubles with manual-transmission cars and navigation without a smartphone or GPS are indicative of generational changes — even since the first season of The Amazing Race in 2001 — in what travel skills most people are taught.

Stick-shift cars: Until the 1970s, the standard American car or light truck had a three-speed manual shifter on the steering column. Not everyone knew how to drive a car with a four-speed, floor-mounted stick shift. Stick shifts were found mainly on sport cars, Volkswagens, and some other imported cars. “Four on the floor” was considered exotic compared to “three on the tree”, not compared to an automatic transmission.

By 1980, most new cars sold in the USA had automatic transmissions, and steering-column manual shifters had disappeared from all but antique cars, but a car that had to be shifted manually was still described as having a “standard” transmission.

Today, less than one new car or light truck in 40 sold in the USA has a manual transmission. Manual transmissions used to be cheaper, more reliable, and more fuel efficient, but none of those are true any more. Hybrid drive trains have accelerated the development of better automatic transmissions for all motor vehicles, and the demise of the manual transmissions.

The ability to drive a stick-shift vehicle varies by age, with a small majority of older drivers in the USA claiming to know how to drive a stick-shift car, but only 18 percent of millenials and younger drivers claiming stick-shift competence, as of 2016.

It may be tempting for older people to sneer at millenials and younger drivers who don’t know how to use a clutch, but there is little or no reason or need for new drivers today in the USA to learn how to drive a stick-shift car unless they plan to travel abroad. The only excuse one automotive journalist could come up with recently for learning to drive a car with a manual transmission was, “I might get cast on The Amazing Race someday.”

The situation in the rest of the world is quite different from that in the USA, and it is still a good idea to learn to drive a stick-shift car if you might be renting cars in other countries. Almost half of all new cars and light trucks sold in the world today have manual transmissions, including more than half of those sold in the European Union. While those percentages are falling, the chances are that the least expensive and most readily available rental cars in many places will have manual transmissions. It’s especially important to get comfortable driving a car with a stick shift if you plan to rent a car in a country where they drive on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to. You really don’t want to (and for safety’s sake probably shouldn’t) try to learn to drive a stick shift and learn to drive on the opposite side of the road at the same time!

Some of the contestants on this season of “The Amazing Race” had tried to learn how to drive a stick shift, just for the race. They hadn’t learned as well as they thought, though, and made mistakes under pressure. A tip for stick-shift learners: Focus first on what you need to do with your feet, not your hands. This may not be obvious to those who have never driven a manual-shift vehicle, but most of the skill in shifting manually is in the interplay of the clutch and accelerator pedals, not the movement of the shift lever. “Stalling out”, the most common symptom of not knowing how to operate a manual transmission, is more often a symptom of mistakes in footwork on the clutch and accelerator pedals than of putting the hand shift lever in the wrong position — although we saw both errors on this episode of “The Amazing Race”.

Navigation without a GPS: Contestants on “The Amazing Race” have never been allowed to bring cellphones or GPS devices, and navigation has always been an issue. But smartphones with built-in GPS receivers and digital maps with global coverage didn’t exist when The Amazing Race launched in 2001. The racers’ skills at map reading varied, but navigation could still be equated with applying (paper) map reading skills.

No so today. GPS-equipped smartphones are ubiquitous, and it makes no sense to disparage people for using the best available tool for the task at hand, or for not knowing how to use a tool they’ve never needed before. That would be like complaining that people don’t know how to build a fire, when they may never have needed to build a fire, and the only camping they have done is in places where fires aren’t permitted. The only time they would need to build a fire is in an emergency. Yes, fire-starting is an important survival skill, as I’m sure some of my wilderness-travel friends will pipe up to remind us, if you are travelling in the back country. But it’s not a skill that everyone needs to know, if that’s not the sort of travel you ever expect to do.

A generation has grown up since the launch of the “The Amazing Race”, many of whom have never needed to read a paper map. A widely-cited survey commissioned last year by the Ordnance Survey (the UK government mapping agency and publisher of topographic maps, analogous to the US Geological Survey) found that only 15% of millenials in the UK had ever tried to read or navigate by using a paper map. Older people, even if we have smartphones, are much more likely still to use paper maps, or at least to feel able to use them when necessary. The same survey found that the average person in the UK age 39 or older consults their mobile phone for navigation only once or twice a month.

I think paper maps are better for certain purposes than smartphones, GPS devices, or digital maps. Paper maps are better for travel planning, for finding destinations that we hadn’t already known about or planned to visit, and for finding routes that might be interesting but aren’t the fastest or most direct. But that’s a different issue, or one for a different reality-TV series. GPS-equipped smartphones and digital maps are very good for the navigation task typically faced by contestants on The Amazing Race: finding the fastest route by car to a specific destination, especially in unfamiliar territory.

(Paper maps have proven to be critical for contestants on the excellent BBC reality-TV travel show Race Across the World, which I’ve mentioned before and which has now completed two seasons with a quite different format than “The Amazing Race”. The contestants on Race Across the World have more leeway to pick their own routes.)

The shift to GPS and smartphone navigation in the everyday world has made their exclusion from “The Amazing Race”, and the generational divide in skill at using paper maps, increasingly significant over the decades and seasons of “The Amazing Race”. Experience using paper maps has become one of the non-obvious but important advantages of most older over most younger contestants on the reality-TV show.

You may think that none of this matters since, if you aren’t a contestant on “The Amazing Race”, you will always have your smartphone handy. But what if you don’t have a cellphone signal, don’t have roaming data access locally, haven’t downloaded a digital map in advance, or your GPS doesn’t have an up-to-date map or directs you in an infinite loop? What if your cellphone is lost, stolen, dropped and broken, or its battery fails? There are times when anyone may need to use some other mode of navigation. Whether or not you’re in a race, you should be prepared.

Maps were important on this episode because the last task for the racers was at a venue that, despite being called a “museum”, is little known to the public, and would be hard to find by asking random passers-by for directions. The Musée des Arts Forains is open only by advance reservation, as part of group tour, and is mainly used as a venue for private events. Even the official Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau describes it as “off the beaten track”.

Victoria and Michelle, who finished last and were eliminated, made three mistakes from which we can learn:

  1. Although they probably had time while they were changing planes (some connected through São Paulo, others through Rio de Janeiro), they didn’t buy a good map and/or guidebook to Paris. The maps and guidebooks available in the airports in Brazil would likely have been in Portuguese, but should still have been useful for navigation. If you know you won’t be able to rely on a smartphone or GPS, get a map! Contestants on “The Amazing Race” have limited funds, but the best available maps should be a priority for their budgets.

  2. They were unable to pronounce the name of their place they were trying to get to well enough for locals to recognize what they were trying to say. They could have gotten past that by showing passers-by their written clue, and asking them to draw a map. But that would have required stopping and getting out of their car. Which brings us to what was probably their most significant error:

  3. Even when they had trouble finding their way, they were reluctant to park their car and get out to ask directions. People on the street will be more willing to help you if you get out of your car and sit down with them to talk, rather then yelling at them out the window of your car. When you ask for directions, you are making a request for a favor, not a demand. Most people will help you, if you are sufficiently polite and humble, but nobody is required to do so.
Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 11 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

My millennial daughter learned how to drive on a stick shift, and was able to get a good deal on a used car in California because there's not much market for them. In South America, also, the stick shift is still the rule rather than the exception.

Posted by: Bernhardson Wayne, 13 November 2020, 13:27 ( 1:27 PM)
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