Surveilling Drivers Can't Fix Amazon's Road Safety Problem

Amazon is installing new surveillance cameras to surveil drivers, but the real danger on the road is its own unrealistic demands as it minimizes liability.
February 4, 2021, 4:00pm
Surveilling Drivers Can't Fix Amazon's Road Safety Problem
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Amazon is planning on installing surveillance cameras inside vehicles in its delivery fleet to watch delivery drivers, The Information reported on Wednesday. 

The idea is to surveil drivers and alert them to poor habits while also sending recordings back to Amazon in a bit to increase safety, but, as has been well-documented already, the real safety problem at Amazon is its own treatment of workers and the demands it places on them. And for that, there isn’t a simple technological fix.

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In an unlisted video on Vimeo posted last week, Karolina Haraldsdottir, Amazon's senior manager for last-mile safety, goes over Amazon's rationale for further expanding its already wide-ranging surveillance network and turning its watchful eye on delivery drivers. The problem, Haraldsdottir explains, is that drivers not only need help being safe but they also need to be held accountable for when they act unsafely.

“Our intention with this technology is to set up drivers for success and provide them support in being safer on-road and handling incidents if and when they happen,” she says in the video.

The Netradyne surveillance system, called Driveri, will help realize "improved driver behavior" through “audible driver coaching.” Driveri will be activated by a multitude of “signals” that trigger the surveillance system such as speeding, failure to stop at a stop sign, hard braking and acceleration, seat belt compliance, U-turns, and more. The system will upload video of infractions, giving audio cues for some actions but not for others, and the video shows the system chastising a driver for pulling out his phone and another for speeding.

The problem, however, is that many of these “signals” occur because of how unsafe and demanding driving for Amazon is.

For years, it has been well-documented that Amazon's delivery network has prioritized near-instantaneous delivery times over safety. In 2019, Caroline O'Donovan and Ken Bensinger reported for Buzzfeed News how Amazon created a system that "shed costs and liability" by using third-party companies to directly pick up and deliver from Amazon facilities. Amazon’s system "goes further than gig companies such as Uber'' in that it contracts companies who hire drivers, meaning Amazon “divorces itself from the people delivering its packages.” As a result, when "intense pressure created by Amazon's punishing targets" results in horrible working conditions, injuries, deaths, or bankruptcies, Amazon can "wash its hands of any responsibility." 

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Buzzfeed News' reporting found that pressures to meet Amazon's demanding targets was so extreme that drivers piled parcels so high on their dashboards that windshields were obscured. 

Later that year, ProPublica and Buzzfeed News co-published an article that found that Amazon consistently prioritized rapidly growing a convenient, nearly instantaneous delivery network over a safe one. "Time after time, internal documents and interviews with company insiders show, Amazon officials have ignored or overlooked signs that the company was overloading its fast-growing delivery network while eschewing the expansive sort of training and oversight provided by a legacy carrier like UPS."

The ProPublica-Buzzfeed report makes clear that whenever the opportunity arose, the company "repeatedly quashed or delayed safety initiatives out of concern that they could jeopardize its mission of satisfying customers with ever-faster delivery." When concern was shown for drivers, it was in creating a liability system that "keeps a tight grip on how drivers working for contractors do their jobs" while telling courts it wasn’t responsible for third-party companies exploiting workers or failing to adopt adequate safety measures.

A separate 2019 investigation by NBC News reiterated a similar point, finding safety was consistently sacrificed when Amazon applied pressure to meet rising demand and punishing targets. Some managers disregarded background checks, allowing drivers who were not adequately prepared for routes to operate vehicles filled beyond normal capacity as a result. Yet another investigation, this time by ProPublica and the New York Times, detailed how Amazon "escapes responsibility for its role in deaths and serious injuries" despite tightly managing third-party delivery drivers.

Road safety is hugely important. But in each and every investigation of the safety of Amazon’s delivery network, a key point has emerged: safety is secondary to Amazon’s desire to increase the volume of deliveries while reducing labor costs and minimizing liability. This is not something that can be addressed by embedding surveillance cameras into every fleet to record and chirp at drivers as they attempt to meet unrealistic targets. 

“We are investing in safety across our operations and recently started rolling out industry leading camera-based safety technology across our delivery fleet,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard. “This technology will provide drivers real-time alerts to help them stay safe when they are on the road.”