Jeff Wilke may no longer be one of the most powerful executives at Amazon, but that doesn’t mean his standards for Amazon’s customer service have relaxed.
Wilke, who oversaw Amazon’s global consumer retail business and worked at the company for over 21 years, told Los Angeles tech and startups publication dot.LA in a recent interview that despite his departure from Amazon, he’s still paying close attention when, say, a package doesn’t arrive on time – and his former employees are going to hear about it.
“I mean, the team knows any time there’s a defect, I’m going to send an email and that’s not going to change,” Wilke said.
Wilke announced last August that he would be stepping down from his role as CEO of worldwide consumer in early 2021 in order to “explore personal interests that have taken a back seat for over two decades,” he wrote in a letter to employees. He’s recently been angel investing in a range of shipping, manufacturing, and biotech startups, according to dot.LA.
Dave Clark, Amazon’s former senior vice president of worldwide operations, replaced Wilke as Amazon’s consumer chief.
Since his departure, Bezos has also announced that he plans to step down from his role as CEO this year, with Jassy taking his place. Wilke told dot.LA that he had “never really thought about” whether he’d be picked as the next CEO of Amazon because he “always imagined Jeff doing it forever.”
When asked if he was surprised when Bezos announced his departure, Wilke responded, simply, “Yes.”
Amazon recently installed AI-powered surveillance cameras in its delivery trucks that monitor drivers’ behavior in what the company says is an effort to reduce risky driving behaviors and collisions.
Whether the cameras ultimately accomplish that goal may depend on how much productivity Amazon is willing to sacrifice in order to keep drivers safe, according to a transportation expert who studies AI-powered safety systems.
Amazon’s cameras, which are made by a startup called Netradyne, record 100% of the time that the vehicle’s ignition is on, tracking workers’ hand movements and even facial expressions and audibly alerting them in real-time when the AI detects what it suspects is distracted or risky driving.
Almost immediately, drivers pushed back – and one even resigned, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation – citing concerns about the cameras eliminating virtually any privacy they once had, as well as potentially making them less productive.
Several drivers told Insider’s Avery Hartmans and Kate Taylor they’re worried about Amazon penalizing them for using their phones on the job, even though they need the devices for navigation. Others said the additional safety precautions they’re taking to avoid committing infractions, like stopping twice at an intersection or driving slower, are making it hard to keep up with the company’s notoriously demanding delivery quotas, which can run as high 300 packages per day.
But that’s exactly the trade-off Amazon may be forced to make, Matt Camden, a senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, told Insider.
“If a fleet wants to reduce risky driving behaviors, it’s critical to look at why the drivers are doing that in the first place, and usually, it’s because there’s other consequences that are driving that behavior,” such as “unrealistic delivery times,” Camden said.
“They want to keep their job. If they miss their delivery time, that’s going to look bad – they could be fired, they could lose their livelihood,” he said. “And if [the delivery time] is unrealistic, then they have to find a way to get it done.”
Instead, Camden said, companies like Amazon need to approach technology-based safety systems “from a more positive standpoint, from a training standpoint and say: ‘We’re not going to nitpick you. We just want you to be safe.'”
“Netradyne cameras are used to help keep drivers and the communities where we deliver safe,” Amazon spokesperson Alexandra Miller told Insider in a statement.
“Don’t believe the self-interested critics who claim these cameras are intended for anything other than safety,” she added.
Netradyne could not be reached for comment.
Miller told Insider in Amazon’s pilot test of the Netradyne cameras from April to October 2020, accidents decreased 48%, stop-sign violations decreased 20%, driving without a seatbelt decreased 60%, and distracted driving decreased 45%.
However, independent research on the Netradyne “Driveri” camera system Amazon uses, and AI camera systems generally, is more sparse.
In an informational video for its camera rollout, Amazon claimed “the camera systems” can “reduce collisions by 1/3 through in-cab warnings,” citing studies by an investment bank called First Analysis as well as VTTI, where Camden works. (First Analysis could not be reached for comment).
Amazon didn’t respond to questions about which studies it was referring to in the video.
Camden said VTTI hasn’t looked at Netradyne’s cameras specifically, but that a study it conducted in 2010 found “video-based monitoring systems” without real-time alerts or AI prevented between 38.1% and 52.2% of “safety-related events” when tested on two different company’s delivery fleets.
But those safety benefits were a result of funneling data from the cameras to safety managers, who could then give feedback to drivers to help them drive safer.
“We can’t say that these AI-powered cameras would reduce 10%, 20%, 30%, 50% [of safety incidents],” Camden said. “We can’t get that specific number yet because we haven’t done the research, but it makes sense that in-vehicle alerts do work to address risky driving,'” Camden said.
Similar technologies do show promise, he said, citing VTTI research that showed real-time lane-departure warnings reducing crashes by more than 45%.
But Camden also said when VTTI did a study last year looking at why some delivery fleets are safer than others, it ultimately came down to which ones had a strong “safety culture” and were “prioritizing and valuing safety, at least on the equal level as productivity, if not higher.”
“The safest ones typically said: ‘If you’re tired, we don’t care if you miss your delivery, we want you to stop. We want you to take a break. If you have to go to the bathroom, we want you to stop and go to the bathroom. We don’t want you to feel pressured to keep going.'”
Camden said those fleets made it clear that drivers could reject unrealistic delivery times and wouldn’t be penalized if the route took longer because of traffic or construction.
“It’s easier said than done, of course, because productivity is driving the business. They have to make money, they have to keep their customers happy,” he said.
“But really, it comes down to creating the policies and the programs to support safety, support the driver, because we don’t want them speeding. We don’t want the drivers cutting corners to try to make a delivery.”
California’s labor commissioner fined Amazon and Green Messengers, a contractor used by Amazon to deliver packages, $6.4 million for stealing wages from 718 delivery drivers, the regulator announced in a press release Monday.
Its investigation found that the drivers, who were employed by Green Messengers to work 10-hour shifts, often had to work more than 11 hours and skip their meal and rest breaks in order to complete their Amazon delivery routes due to the high volume of packages.
But the investigation also found that, between April 2018 and January 2020, Green Messengers failed to pay them correctly for that extra work, which “resulted in frequent minimum wage, overtime, meal break, rest period and split-shift violations,” the release said.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story. As of Monday evening, Green Messengers’ website had been taken offline and a phone number listed for the business had been disconnected. According to the release, both companies have appealed the fines.
While Amazon owns a massive fleet of delivery vehicles, it relies on a complex network of regional contractors like Green Messengers to employ many of the drivers who operate those vehicles.
The arrangement typically allows Amazon to avoid certain labor costs and legal liabilities that come with hiring employees directly, but a California law that went into effect in 2015 prevents companies like Amazon from shifting blame to contractors by allowing them to still be held liable for labor violations.
“Contracting out services does not release employers from their duty to ensure workers are being legally compensated,” California labor commissioner Lilia García-Brower said in the release. “In this case, both Green Messengers and Amazon.com Services are responsible for the wage theft that these workers suffered.”
The fines included more than $5.3 million in damages, wages, interest, and other penalties owed to the drivers, plus roughly $1.1 million in civil penalties owed to the state, according to the release.
Amazon has come under fire before for the working conditions it imposes on delivery drivers, both directly and indirectly through its delivery service partners, which investigations from multiple outlets including Insider and BuzzFeed News have found contributed to increased injury rates.