Amazon’s race to build a fast delivery network: ‘The human cost of this is too much’

New documents and interviews reveal how time after time, the e-commerce giant put speed, profit, and explosive growth before public safety

Demonstrators hold signs outside Jeff Bezos’s penthouse during a protest in New York City on Dec. 2./ Bloomberg / Getty Images

By Ken Bensinger, Caroline O’Donovan, James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Doris Burke | ProPublica and BuzzFeed News

As they prepared for last year’s holiday rush, managers at Amazon unveiled a plan to make the company’s sprawling delivery network the safest in the world.

Amazon, which ships millions of packages a day to homes and businesses across the US, had seen a string of fatal crashes involving vans making those deliveries over the previous few years. Improving safety, the plan said, was “Amazon’s Greatest Opportunity.”

A key part of the proposal was a five-day course that would put new drivers through on-road assessments overseen by an outside organization with four decades of experience in driver training.

But the defensive-driving course didn’t materialize.

Amid the rush of what would become Amazon’s busiest holiday season ever, the class was vetoed. With more than a billion packages shipping in a span of six weeks, the company needed to put drivers to work almost as soon as they were hired, internal documents show.

Vans line up to depart after loading at the South San Francisco Amazon facility.
/ Caroline Gutman for BuzzFeed News

“We chose to not have onroad practical training because it was a bottleneck” that would keep new drivers off the road, noted a memo written by a senior manager in the logistics division just after the peak season wrapped up.

Improving safety, the plan said, was “Amazon’s Greatest Opportunity.” 

In just a few years, Amazon has built a delivery system that has disrupted a decades-old business dominated by FedEx and United Parcel Service. But in its relentless drive to get bigger while keeping costs low, Amazon’s logistics operation has repeatedly emphasized speed and cost over safety, a new investigation by ProPublica and BuzzFeed News has found.

Time after time, internal documents and interviews with company insiders show, Amazon officials have ignored or overlooked signs that the company was overloading its fast-growing delivery network while eschewing the expansive sort of training and oversight provided by a legacy carrier like UPS.

One such incident hit particularly close to home. Just as the company began to build its delivery network six years ago, a delivery van carrying Amazon packages struck a cyclist in a San Francisco suburb. The cyclist was Joy Covey, Amazon’s first chief financial officer. She was killed, leaving behind a young son.


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December 2019