For the 275,000 Amazon drivers dropping off 10 million packages a day around the world, the job can be a grind. But a lot has changed since drivers in 2021 told CNBC about unrealistic workloads, peeing in bottles, dog bites and error-prone routing software.
Among the biggest developments is the arrival of a brand-new electric van from Rivian.
Amazon was a big and early investor in the electric vehicle company, which went public in late 2021 with a plan to build trucks and SUVs for consumers and delivery vans for businesses. Since July, Amazon has rolled out more than 1,000 new Rivian vans, which are now making deliveries in more than 100 U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, Nashville, New York City and Austin, Texas.
The partnership began in 2019, when Amazon founder and ex-CEO Jeff Bezos announced Amazon had purchased 100,000 electric vans from Rivian as one step toward his company's ambitious promise of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.
″[We] will have prototypes on the road next year, but 100,000 deployed by 2024," Bezos said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in September 2019. Amazon has since revised the timeline, saying it expects all 100,000 Rivian vans on the road by 2030.
Rivian has faced several challenges in recent months. It cut back 2022 production amid supply chain and assembly line issues. Its stock price dropped so sharply last year that Amazon recorded a combined $11.5 billion markdown on its holdings in the first two quarters.
CNBC talked to drivers to see what's changed with the driving experience. We also went to Amazon's Delivering the Future event in Boston in November for a look at the technology designed to maximize safety and efficiency for delivery personnel.
For now, most Amazon drivers are still in about 110,000 gas-powered vans — primarily Ford Transits, Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and Ram ProMasters. Amazon wouldn't share how it determines which of its 3,500 third-party delivery firms, or delivery service partners (DSPs), are receiving Rivian vans first.
The e-commerce giant has been using DSPs to deliver its packages since 2018, allowing the company to reduce its reliance on UPS and the U.S. Postal Service for the so-called last mile, the most expensive portion of the delivery journey. The DSP, which works exclusively with Amazon, employs the drivers and is responsible for the liabilities of the road, vehicle maintenance, and the costs of hiring, benefits and overtime pay.
Amazon leases the vans to DSP owners at a discount. The company covers the fuel for gas-powered vans and installs charging stations for electric vehicles.
The company says DSP owners have generated $26 billion in revenue and now operate in 15 countries, including Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, Canada, and all over Europe.
In the early days of testing the Rivian vans, some drivers voiced concerns about range. An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC the vans can travel up to 150 miles on a single charge, which is typically plenty of power for a full shift and allows drivers to recharge the vehicle overnight.
As for maintenance, Amazon says that takes place at Rivian service centers near delivery stations or by a Rivian mobile service team, depending on location.
Julieta Dennis launched a DSP, Kangaroo Direct, in Baltimore three years ago. She employs about 75 drivers and leases more than 50 vans from Amazon. She now has 15 Rivian vehicles.
"It's very easy to get in and out with all of the different handles to hold on to," Dennis said. She said that some drivers were hesitant at first because the vehicles were so new and different, "but the moment they get in there and have their first experience, that's the van that they want to drive."
Brandi Monroe has been delivering for Kangaroo Direct for two years. She pointed to features on a Rivian van that are upgrades over what she's driven in the past. There's a large non-slip step at the back, a hand cart for helping with heavy packages and extra space for standing and walking in the cargo area.
"We have two shelves on both sides to allow for more space," Monroe said, adding that she'd prefer to drive a Rivian for every shift. "And then the lights at the top: very innovative to help us see the packages and address a lot easier, especially at nighttime."
There's even a heated steering wheel.
Former driver B.J. Natividad, who goes by Avionyx on YouTube, says his non-electric van could get very cramped.
"I remember one time I had 23 or 24 bags and over 40 oversize packages and I had to be able to figure out how to stuff that all in there within the 15 minutes that they give us to load up in the morning," said Natividad, who now works for USPS.
The Rivian vans have at least 100 more cubic feet than the Sprinter and up to double the cargo space of the Ford Transit vans Natividad drove in Las Vegas. Rivian vans are still small enough that they don't require a special license to drive, though Amazon provides its own training for drivers.
One driver in Seattle, who asked to remain unnamed, was especially excited about the new Rivian vans. He offered an extensive tour of the new driving experience on his YouTube channel called Friday Adventure Club.
He said one of his favorite features is a light bar "that goes all the way around the back." He also likes that the windshield is "absolutely massive," the wide doors allow for easy entry and exit, and the cargo door automatically opens when the van is parked. There are two rows of shelves that fold up and down in the cargo area.
There's also new technology, such as an embedded tablet with the driving route and a 360-degree view that shows all sides of the van.
Mai Le, Amazon's vice president of Last Mile, oversaw the testing of the center console and Rivian's integrated software.
"We did a lot of deliveries as a test," Le said. "As a woman, I want to make sure that the seats are comfortable for me and that my legs can reach the pedals, I can see over the steering wheel."
She demonstrated some of the benefits of the new technology.
"When we start to notice that you're slowing down, that means that we can tell you're getting near to your destination," she said. "The map begins to zoom in, so you begin to find where's your delivery location, which building and where parking could be."
The new vans have keyless entry. They automatically lock when the driver is 15 feet away and unlock as the driver approaches.
Above all else, Amazon says the changes were designed to make the delivery job safer.
A ProPublica report found Amazon's contract drivers were involved in more than 60 serious crashes from 2015 to 2019, at least 10 of which were fatal. Amazon put cameras and sensors all over the Rivian vans, which enable warnings and lane assist technology that autocorrects if the vehicle veers out of the lane.
Dennis mentioned the importance of automatic braking and the steering wheel that starts "just kind of shaking when you get too close to something."
"There's just so many features that would really, really help cut back on some of those incidental accidents," she said.
Amazon vans have driver-facing cameras inside, which can catch unsafe driving practices as they happen.
"The in-vehicle safety technology we have watches for poor safety behaviors like distracted driving, seat belts not being fastened, running stop signs, traffic lights," said Beryl Tomay, who helps run the technology side of delivery as vice president of Last Mile for Amazon.
"We've seen over the past year a reduction of 80% to 95% in these events when we've warned drivers real time," she said. "But the really game-changing results that we've seen have been almost a 50% reduction in accidents."
As a DSP owner, Dennis gets alerts if her drivers exhibit patterns of unsafe behavior.
"If something with a seat belt or just something flags, then our team will contact the driver and make sure that that's coached on and taken care of and figured out, like what actually happened," Dennis said.
That level of constant surveillance may be unsettling for some drivers. Dennis said that issues haven't come up among her staffers. And Amazon stresses it's focused on driver privacy.
"We've taken great care from a privacy perspective," Tomay said. "There's no sound ever being recorded. There's no camera recording if the driver's not driving and there's a privacy mode."
Amazon says the cabin-facing camera automatically switches off when the ignition is off, and privacy mode means it also turns off if the vehicle is stationary for more than 30 seconds.
Safety concerns extend beyond the vehicle itself. For example, an Amazon driver in Missouri was found dead in a front yard in October, allegedly after a dog attack.
Amazon says new technology can help. Drivers can choose to manually notify customers ahead of a delivery, giving them time to restrain pets. Another feature that's coming, according to Le, will allow drivers to mark delivery locations that have pets.
Natividad said he had multiple close calls with dogs charging at him during deliveries.
"You customers out there, please restrain your dogs when you know a package is coming," he said. "Please keep them inside. Don't leave them just outside."
Providing drivers with more efficient and better detailed routes could improve safety, too. Drivers in 2021 told us about losing time because Amazon's routing software made a mistake, like not recognizing a closed road or gated community. In response, they sometimes tried to save time in other ways.
"People are running through stop signs, running through yellow lights," said Adrienne Williams, a former DSP driver. "Everybody I knew was buckling their seat belt behind their backs because the time it took just to buckle your seat belt, unbuckle your seat belt every time was enough time to get you behind schedule."
Amazon listened. The company has been adding a huge amount of detail to driver maps, using information from 16 third-party map vendors as well as machine learning models informed by satellite driver feedback and other sources.
One example is a new in-vehicle data collection system called Fleet Edge, which is currently in a few thousand vans. Fleet Edge collects real-time data from a street view camera and GPS device during a driver's route.
"Due to Fleet Edge, we've added over 120,000 new street signs to Amazon's mapping system," Tomay said. "The accuracy of GPS locations has increased by over two and a half times in our test areas, improving navigation safety by announcing upcoming turns sooner."
Tomay said the maps also added points of interest like coffee shops and restrooms, so in about 95% of metro areas, "drivers can find a spot to take a break within five minutes of a stop."
In 2021, Amazon apologized for dismissing claims that drivers were urinating in bottles as a result of demanding delivery schedules. Natividad said he occasionally found urine-filled bottles in his vans before his shift in the mornings.
"As soon as I open the van, I'm looking around, I see a bottle of urine. I'm like, 'Oh, I'm not touching this,'" he said.
Pay for Amazon drivers is up to the discretion of each individual DSP, although Amazon says it regularly audits DSP rates to make sure they're competitive. Indeed.com puts average Amazon driver pay at nearly $19 an hour, 16% higher than the national average.
Natividad started delivering for Amazon in 2021 when his gigs as a fulltime disc jockey dried up because of the pandemic. He liked the job at the time, generally delivering at least 200 packages along the same route. However, during the holiday season that year, he once had more than 400 packages and 200 stops in a single shift.
"Towards the end of my day, they sent out two rescues to me to help out to make sure everything's done before 10 hours," he said.
Amazon is working to optimize its routes. But it's an unwieldy operation. The company says it's generated 225,000 unique routes per day during peak season.
Tomay said the company looks at the density of packages, the complexity of delivery locations "and any other considerations like weather and traffic from past history to put a route together that we think is ideal."
There's no one-size-fits-all solution.
"Given that we're in over 20 countries and every geography looks different, it's not just about delivery vehicles or vans anymore," Tomay said. "We have rickshaws in India. We have walkers in Manhattan."
In Las Vegas, Amazon held a roundtable last year for DSP owners and drivers. Natividad says he spoke for 20 minutes at the event about the need for Amazon to improve its routing algorithms.
"I think they should do that probably once a month, with all the DSP supervision and a few of the drivers, and not the same drivers every time. That way different feedback is given. And like seriously listen to them," Natividad said. "Because they're not the ones out there seeing and experiencing what we go through."
Natividad didn't get to try out the routing technology in the Rivian vans before he left to deliver for USPS in July. He's excited that the postal service is following in Amazon's footsteps with 66,000 electric vans coming by 2028.
Amazon, meanwhile, is diversifying its electric fleet beyond Rivian. The company has ordered thousands of electric Ram vans from Stellantis and also has some on the way from Mercedes-Benz.
Correction: Julieta Dennis launched a DSP, Kangaroo Direct, in Baltimore three years ago. An earlier version misspelled her name.