Amazon vans line up at a distribution center to pick up packages for delivery on Amazon Prime Day, July 16, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Last week, Amazon triggered privacy concerns when it confirmed it’s rolling out AI-enabled cameras in vans used by some of its contracted delivery partners. But the company has for years been using software to monitor and track delivery drivers’ behavior on the road.
Amazon requires contracted delivery drivers to download and continuously run an app, called “Mentor,” that monitors their driving behavior while they’re on the job. The app, which Amazon bills as a tool to improve driver safety, generates a score each day that measures employees’ driving performance.
The delivery service partner (DSP) program, launched in 2018, is made up of contracted delivery companies that handle a growing share of the online retail giant’s last-mile deliveries. In just a few years, the program has grown to include more than 1,300 DSPs across five countries, threatening to upend an industry that has traditionally been dominated by shipping partners such as UPS and FedEx.
Just like the AI-equipped cameras rolling out to DSPs, Mentor is framed as a “digital driver safety app” to help employees avoid accidents and other unsafe driving habits while they’re en route to their destination. But multiple delivery drivers who spoke to CNBC described the app as invasive and raised concerns that bugs within the app can, at times, lead to unfair disciplinary action from their manager.
Amazon spokesperson Deborah Bass told CNBC in a statement: “Safety is Amazon’s top priority. Whether it’s state-of-the art telemetrics and advanced safety technology in last-mile vans, driver-safety training programs, or continuous improvements within our mapping and routing technology, we have invested tens of millions of dollars in safety mechanisms across our network, and regularly communicate safety best practices to drivers.”
But Bass did not respond to any of the specific allegations DSP drivers made to CNBC about the Mentor app detailed in this story, as well as questions about how the app uses certain behaviors to score drivers.
Amazon drivers are required to log in to the Mentor app at the start of their shift each day.
The scores generated by the Mentor app are used in more ways than just evaluating an individual driver’s job performance, drivers say. Amazon also looks at the scores, in part, when ranking a delivery partner’s status, according to the drivers, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from Amazon.
The ranking system for DSPs ranges from “Poor” to “Good” to “Fantastic” to the top tier, referred to as “Fantastic+.” A surplus of poor Mentor scores among a delivery partner’s workforce can drag down the DSP’s ranking, which can potentially jeopardize their access to benefits provided by Amazon, such as optimal delivery routes, the drivers said.
The app also features a dashboard for drivers to “see how they stack up against the rest of their team.” Mentor’s score-based system raises concerns that the app intensifies the pressure of the job, pitting drivers and competing DSPs against each other to an unhealthy degree.
DSPs are already under intense pressure due to the ease with which Amazon can cut contracts with delivery partners.
“The knowledge that you’re under this level of constant surveillance, that even if you’re doing a good job at your job, an app or algorithm could make a determination that impacts your life or your ability to put food on the table for your kids is, I think, profoundly unjust,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “It’s incredibly dystopian.”
How Mentor works
The Mentor app was created by eDriving, a New Jersey-based technology company that develops road safety tools for the automotive and logistics industries. Representatives from eDriving did not respond to requests for comment.
Amazon drivers are required to log into the Mentor app at the start of their shift each day. The app calculates a score for every driver, referred to as a “FICO score,” based on their driving performance.
The Mentor app calculates a score for every driver, referred to as a “FICO score,” based on their driving performance.
The app tracks and measures driving behaviors such as harsh breaking, speeding, making cellphone calls or sending text messages, according to a Mentor guide for DSP drivers. The app also tracks seatbelt use and driving in reverse, but those behaviors don’t factor into a driver’s FICO score.
Mentor has a tiered system for scoring, with a top score of 800 to 850 considered to be “Great,” while a score of 100 to 499 is considered to be the lowest level, or labeled by the app as “Risky.” It’s unclear how many points each infraction is worth, but drivers say some infractions can hurt their FICO score more than others.
“I had no control over it”
The safety infractions don’t have to be severe in order to drag down a driver’s score on the Mentor app.
“I got a ding because someone called me and I didn’t answer it,” said Devin Gonzales, a former driver who was fired by his Colorado-based DSP last month. The Mentor app had falsely flagged the incoming call as an infraction because it thought the phone was in use while he was driving.
“I had no control over it,” Gonzales added.
At other DSPs across the U.S., delivery drivers said they experienced issues with the Mentor app. Adrienne Williams, who drove for Amazon until last July, ran the Mentor app on an electronic package scanner, referred to internally as a “rabbit.” Drivers use the rabbit to indicate when they arrive at each delivery stop on their route, among other uses.
Williams said she grew frustrated as she would pick up the rabbit device to mark her stop, while her van idled, but the Mentor app would log the action as distracted driving. As a result, Williams would see her Mentor score drop each time she arrived at a delivery destination.
“Every time I said I’m at the stop, I got dinged,” Williams said in an interview. “And that is 150 stops in a day, so I got dinged at least 150 times a day.”
After this pushed her score from the “high 700s and 800s” to around the 400 level, “[the Mentor app] said my driving was risky,” Williams said. “I got pulled aside and told your FICO score is too low.”
Williams’ DSP later gave her another rabbit device, just to run the Mentor app. She said she would keep the device locked in her van’s glove compartment to avoid any bugs with the app and to preserve her FICO score.
DSPs can use data collected by the Mentor app for employment decisions, including disciplinary actions like write ups. Drivers say if their score falls below a certain threshold, they can be taken off the work schedule for a few days or a week, lose access to bonuses and be barred from certain perks. For example, some DSPs will pay drivers for a full day’s shift if they finish their work early, but if a driver’s FICO score is too low, they’ll only get paid for the hours they complete, drivers said.
In one YouTube video, a DSP driver instructs employees to wrap the phone with Mentor installed in a sweater and place it in the van’s glovebox so that it doesn’t jostle around while the car is in motion, which the app can mistake as the driver using their device.
“If your device moves at all, it’s going to count against you,” the driver, Juan Ramos, says in the video. “You have a bigger chance of making your score go down.”
While the Mentor app is meant to make drivers adopt safer driving habits, some DSP employees said it pushes them to take risks, as they worry the extra steps may slow them down and draw a rebuke from managers who expect speedy deliveries.
The Mentor app is capable of tracking whether a driver is using their seatbelt if they’re driving an Amazon-branded van. Some drivers will fasten their seatbelt, but place the strap that typically rests across their chest behind them, so they can more easily move about while they’re driving, while avoiding an infraction from the Mentor app.
“Most drivers buckle, put the seatbelt behind them and drive without a seatbelt on, which is unsafe,” said one DSP driver from Ohio.
If a driver feels the Mentor app has incorrectly flagged them, they can dispute it in the app. But that doesn’t always lead to a resolution.
“After you dispute it, they’ll email you back and say, ‘We’re sorry,’ and that’s it,” said one DSP driver from Ohio. “It’s not a very robust system. I don’t think [eDriving] understands how important a driver’s score is.”
Tracked at home
The Mentor app is a central focus of DSP drivers’ day-to-day life on the job as they work to keep up their safety score. But the app may also follow drivers outside of their delivery van and into their homes.
Some DSPs provide drivers with a company-issued phone where they can download and run Mentor, but several drivers told CNBC that they weren’t provided with a separate device by their company, so they were required to download the app on their personal device.
The Mentor app tracks a users’ location using GPS. Privacy features in Apple’s iOS operating system for iPhones prompt users via a pop-up message on the screen to select whether they’d like an app to run location services in the background just once, only while they’re using the app or all the time. Drivers are told to allow the Mentor app to collect location data at all times.
“When this message appears, you are presented with two options, ‘Change to Only While Using’ or ‘Always Allow,'” the Mentor guide issued to DSP drivers states. “This setting should remain ‘Always Allow’ in order to accurately record trips.”
Williams said her Richmond, Calif.-based DSP didn’t provide drivers with a phone, so they were expected to download Mentor on their own device. Williams said she refused and the DSP gave her a different phone, but most of her coworkers were too apprehensive to voice their concerns, so they agreed to let Mentor track their location without any restrictions.
“A lot of my colleagues said it put them off but they didn’t know what to do,” Williams said. “So you’re stuck saying, ‘I’m going to allow my employer follow me at all times on my personal phone.'”