Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

BuzzFeed News Investigation Finds Increasing Demand for Urgent Amazon Deliveries Has Led to Safety Corners Cut, Resulting in Collisions and Deaths

Caroline O’Donovan and Ken Bensinger, Buzzfeed News:

The super-pressurized, chaotic atmosphere leading up to that tragedy was hardly unique to Inpax, to Chicago, or to the holiday crunch. Amazon is the biggest retailer on the planet — with customers in 180 countries — and in its relentless bid to offer ever-faster delivery at ever-lower costs, it has built a national delivery system from the ground up. In under six years, Amazon has created a sprawling, decentralized network of thousands of vans operating in and around nearly every major metropolitan area in the country, dropping nearly 5 million packages on America’s doorsteps seven days a week.

[…]

UPS and FedEx, the traditional powers of the logistics world, are deeply invested in safety. UPS, which spends $175 million a year on safety training alone, even has a policy prohibiting drivers from taking unnecessary left turns to reduce exposure to oncoming traffic, finish routes faster, and save fuel. Both firms are also heavily regulated by the government, and many of their trucks are subject to regular federal safety inspections and can be put out of service at any time by the Department of Transportation.

But Amazon’s ingenious system has allowed it to avoid that kind of scrutiny. There is no public listing of which firms are part of its delivery network, and the ubiquitous cargo vans their drivers use are not subject to DOT oversight. But by interviewing drivers as well as reviewing job boards, classified listings, online forums, lawsuits, and media reports, BuzzFeed News identified at least 250 companies that appear to work or have worked as contracted delivery providers for Amazon. The company said it has enabled the creation of at least 200 new delivery firms in the past year, a third of which are owned and run by military veterans. Inpax gets fully 70% of its business from Amazon; some companies depend on the retail giant for all of their income.

The 250 “last mile” delivery companies Buzzfeed found aren’t exactly competitors to UPS or FedEx — even though I bet plenty of people would wish for more competition in that space. Often, they’re couriers working in tandem with heavyweight logistics companies. FedEx might get the parcel across the country, for example, but will have one of these smaller companies bring the product from a warehouse to a customer’s home. And there are hundreds of these courier companies operating with little regulation, high demand, and core dependency on Amazon.

Among the characteristics that distinguish this era of enormously powerful technology companies: increasing the layers of abstraction between companies and their infrastructure; promising consumers more and relying on already-squeezed contractors, thereby exploiting their services; and celebrating their contractors’ successes as their own while deferring responsibility for any mistakes or problems.