The world knows Amazon has the world's biggest retailer and the brainchild of Jeff Bezos who moves into an executive chairman role in Q3 later this year, but it is basically an invention company with AI-infused at its heart. Amazon has been taking that AI-centric mentality to heart and equipping its delivery vans with AI-powered cameras that keep an eye on both the road and the driver.
These cameras are soon coming to life of Amazon-branded cargo vans used by a handful of companies which have been used for last-mile deliveries. These partners are called Delivery Supply Partners or DSPs.
"We are investing in safety across our operations and recently started rolling out industry-leading camera-based safety technology across our delivery fleet," said Amazon's Deborah Bass said in a statement. "This technology will provide drivers real-time alerts to help them stay safe when they are on the road," she added.
These DSP vans are indistinguishable from Amazon's own vans and they help the retailer compete with UPS and FedEx with last-mile logistics. The idea is to tackle the safety issues for which Amazon has been criticised in the past.
Amazon claims the cameras help improve safety but there are privacy advocates and several DSP drivers who aren't happy with the situation. Many drivers have described the situation as an "unnerving" "big brother" and "a punishment system".
Some drivers are concerned that the system will add more pressure to the job. Amazon for its part also confirms that the footage taken will be used for emolument decisions. The drivers are also subject to disciplinary action including getting fired depending on the severity of the safety infraction detected by the camera.
"I don't think [Amazon] even knows yet all the ways they will use the video that is collected by these devices," said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future to CNBC. "It just means that every Amazon vehicle will now also be an Amazon surveillance camera. And right now there are essentially no laws in place to govern what Amazon can do with all that footage once they collect it," he added.
The cameras themselves are interesting as they record 100 per cent of the time. They are made by Netradyne, which is a San Diego based startup which was founded in 2015 by former Qualcomm employees. The cameras called Driveri has four lenses that capture the road, driver and both sides of the vehicle creating a sense of spatial awareness inside and outside the vehicle.
They are powered by AI algorithms which can detect 16 different safety issues, including if the driver fails to stop at a stop sign, or is distracted while driving or speeding and hard braking etc. Some drivers have claimed it can even detect if the driver is yawning. Certain violations will cause an audio alert.
Drivers do have some control over the cameras - they can upload footage manually and drivers can turn off cab-facing cameras when the ignition in the van is turned off.
While there is no live feed, in case of certain issues like when a driver is yawning, it can trigger a phone call from the DSP to order the driver to pull over for 15 mins.
Amazon also claims that video footage can be a great tool for getting facts around a situation which can also be used to exonerate a driver from blame in safety situations.
But in the US, the drivers aren't convinced. Many experts say that it is worrisome because Amazon uses software to review footage at scale which could be error-prone. AI systems also have questionable gender and racial bias. It is also reeks of surveillance technology even though Amazon isn't the only one testing such cameras as UPS has also dabbled with the same.
Some believe it sends out the wrong message to the drivers.