Amazon makes use of an app referred to as Mentor to trace and self-discipline supply drivers
Amazon delivery vans line up at a distribution center to pick up packages for delivery on Amazon Prime Day on July 16, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images
Last week, Amazon sparked privacy concerns when it confirmed it was rolling out AI-enabled cameras in delivery vans used by some of its contractors. However, the company has been using software for years to monitor and track the behavior of delivery drivers on the road.
Amazon requires contracted delivery agents to download and continuously run a smartphone app called "Mentor" that monitors their driving behavior while they work. The app, which Amazon bills as a tool for improving driver safety, generates a score every day that measures the driving performance of employees.
The Delivery Service Partner (DSP) program, launched in 2018, consists of contractually agreed delivery companies that handle a growing proportion of the online retail giant's last mile deliveries. In just a few years, the program has grown to more than 1,300 delivery companies in five countries, threatening to revive an industry traditionally dominated by shipping partners like UPS and FedEx.
Just like the AI-equipped cameras that are delivered to contracted delivery companies, Mentor is designed as a "digital driver safety app" to help employees avoid accidents and other unsafe driving habits on the way to their destination. However, several delivery drivers who spoke to CNBC described the app as invasive and raised concerns that errors in the app can sometimes lead to unfair disciplinary action from their manager.
Amazon spokeswoman Deborah Bass told CNBC in a statement, "Safety is a top priority for Amazon. Whether it's cutting-edge telemetry and advanced safety technology in last mile vans, driver safety training programs, or continuous improvements in our mapping and routing technology we've invested tens of millions of dollars in security mechanisms on our network and regularly shared best security practices with drivers. "
However, Bass did not respond to the specific allegations DSP Drivers made against CNBC regarding the mentor app described in this story, as well as questions about how the app uses certain behaviors to evaluate drivers.
Amazon drivers must log into the Mentor app at the start of their shift each day.
The results generated by the Mentor app aren't just used to assess a person's job performance, say the drivers. Amazon also checks some of the results when it comes to assessing the status of a delivery partner, according to the drivers, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from Amazon.
The ranking system for DSPs ranges from "Bad" to "Good" and "Fantastic" to the top level, which is called "Fantastic +". An excess of bad mentor values among the employees of a delivery partner can affect the ranking of the DSP, which can potentially jeopardize access to the advantages provided by Amazon such as optimal delivery routes, according to the drivers.
The app also features a dashboard that allows drivers "to see how they're doing" against the rest of their team. Mentor's scoring-based system is a concern that the app is adding to the pressure of the job and unhealthy rivalries between drivers and competing DSPs.
DSPs are already under a lot of pressure as Amazon can easily conclude contracts with delivery partners.
"The knowledge that you are under this constant surveillance that even if you do a good job at your job, an app or algorithm can make a decision that will affect your life or your ability to put food on the table Your children are deeply unfair, I believe, "said Evan Greer, associate director of Digital Rights Group Fight for the Future. "It's incredibly dystopian."
How mentor works
The Mentor app was developed by eDriving, a New Jersey-based technology company that develops traffic safety tools for the automotive and logistics industries. EDriving representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Amazon drivers must log into the Mentor app at the start of their shift each day. The app calculates a number of points for each driver, called the "FICO score", based on their driving performance and not to be confused with the credit rating of the same name.
The Mentor App calculates a score for each driver, known as the "FICO Score", based on their driving performance.
The app tracks and measures driving behavior such as heavy braking, accelerating, making calls or sending text messages according to a mentor manual for DSP drivers. The app also tracks seat belt use and reversing, but these behaviors do not take into account a driver's FICO score.
Mentor has a tiered rating system with a maximum score of 800 to 850 being considered "great" while a score of 100 to 499 is considered the lowest level or is labeled "risky" by the app. It's unclear how many points each violation is worth, but drivers say that some violations can affect their FICO score more than others.
"I had no control over it"
The security breaches don't have to be severe to lower a driver's score on the Mentor app.
"I got one thing because someone called me and I didn't answer," said Devin Gonzales, a former driver who was fired from his Colorado-based DSP last month. The Mentor app had incorrectly flagged the incoming call as a violation, believing the phone was being used while driving.
"I had no control over it," added Gonzales.
At other DSPs in the United States, delivery drivers reported having problems with the Mentor app. Adrienne Williams, who drove for Amazon until last July, ran the Mentor app on an electronic parcel scanner known internally as the "rabbit". Drivers use the rabbit to show, among other things, when they will arrive at each delivery stop on their route.
Williams said she was frustrated when she picked up the rabbit device to mark her stop while her van was idling, but the mentor app would log the action as distracted driving. As a result, Williams would see a drop in her Mentor score every time she arrived at a delivery destination.
"Every time I said I was at the stop, I was cheated," Williams said in an interview. "And that's 150 stops in a day, so I was cheated at least 150 times a day."
After that increased her score from the "high 700s and 800s" to around 400, "(the mentor app) said my driving was risky," Williams said. "I got pulled aside and said your FICO score was too low."
Williams' DSP later gave her another rabbit device just to run the Mentor app. She said she would keep the device in the glove compartment of her van to avoid mistakes with the app and to keep her FICO score.
DSPs can use the data collected by the Mentor app to make employment decisions, including disciplinary action such as attributions. Drivers say if their score falls below a certain threshold, they can be struck off the work schedule for a few days or a week, lose access to bonuses and be excluded from certain perks. For example, some DSPs pay drivers a full day's shift if they finish their work early. However, when a driver's FICO score is too low, they are only paid for the hours they complete, according to drivers.
On Reddit forums and Facebook groups, DSP drivers share tips on how to play the Mentor app and get their score up. Some of the tips can be particularly complicated.
In a YouTube video, a DSP driver instructs employees to wrap the phone with Mentor in a sweater and put it in the van’s glove compartment so it doesn't spin around while the car is moving, which the app can mistake for the driver your device.
"If your device moves at all, it counts against you," says driver Juan Ramos in the video. "You have a better chance your score will drop."
While the Mentor app is designed to help drivers adopt safer driving habits, some DSP staff are encouraging them to take risks fearing the extra steps could slow them down and reprimand managers expecting quick deliveries.
The Mentor app can track whether a driver is wearing their seat belt when driving an Amazon-branded van. Some drivers buckle up but place the seat belt that is usually across the chest behind them to make it easier for them to move around while driving without breaking the Mentor app.
"Most drivers buckle up their seat belts, wear their seat belts and drive without a seat belt, which is unsafe," said a DSP driver from Ohio.
If a driver thinks that the mentor app has tagged them incorrectly, they can deny this in the app. But that doesn't always lead to a solution.
"After you deny it, they'll email you and say, 'We're sorry' and that's it," said the Ohio DSP driver. "It's not a very robust system. I don't think (eDriving) understands the importance of a driver's score."
Followed at home
The Mentor app is central to the daily work life of DSP drivers as they are working to maintain their safety rating. The app can also follow drivers outside of their delivery truck and into their homes.
Some DSPs provide drivers with a company-issued phone that they can use to download and run Mentor. However, several drivers told CNBC that they didn't get a separate device from their company, so they had to download the app on their personal device.
The Mentor app tracks a user's location using GPS. Data protection features in Apple's iOS operating system for iPhones prompt users via a pop-up message on the screen to choose whether an app should run location services only once in the background, only while they are using the app, or all the time. The drivers are instructed that the Mentor app can collect location data at any time.
"When you see this message, you have two options:" Change only while in use "or" Always allow "," states the Mentor DSP Driver Guide. "This setting should remain 'Always allow' to accurately record journeys."
Williams said their Richmond, Calif. Based DSP did not provide a phone to drivers, so they were expected to download Mentor onto their own device. Williams said she refused and the DSP gave her another phone, but most of her staff were too concerned to express their concerns and they agreed to let Mentor track her location without restrictions.
"A lot of my colleagues said it scared them off, but they didn't know what to do," said Williams. "So you're stuck saying, 'I will allow my employer to follow me on my personal phone at any time.'"