Amazon Flex drivers are using robots to ‘deceptively’ do more

Like many Gig Economy workers, Amazon Flex drivers are starting the day by opening an app, according tomedia. Drivers can find package delivery jobs in their area in the Flex app. Once logged in, the driver will repeatedly click on the large orange refresh button until the delivery shift (called “blocks”) appears on the screen.

After Blocks popped up, drivers scrambled to apply for one of the few available services. They have a few seconds to request a shift by swiping on a block and clicking “Accept” on the screen. The new shift appears to appear in the application at random intervals, and if you don’t swipe quickly and tap them, the chunk disappears. The race can be brutal, with hundreds of drivers competing for several blocks at the same time.

In response, some Flex drivers have started using robots, a combination of hardware and software designed to mimic the knock-on block movements, to increase their chances of getting a shift. Bots also eliminate some of the hassle of Flex applications, such as having to keep refreshing. Technically, using robots is cheating and violates Amazon policy. But for many drivers, robots are the key to making Flex worth using.

Launched in 2015, Amazon Flex is still a problem for some drivers, but for others it has become one of their main sources of income. The program uses the driver’s own vehicle to deliver packages and operates in about 50 cities. Drivers earn $18 to $25 an hour, depending on the type of block, but as independent contractors they are responsible for all vehicle-related costs, such as fuel, tolls and maintenance.

By having robots do some heavy lifting, users can get faster blocking speeds than humans. However, they also run the risk of Amazon suspending it from the app because Flex’s terms of service prohibit the use of programs or scripts “for investigative, manipulative, or data mining purposes.” If drivers are banned from using the app, they will not be able to get Flex work.

Despite the risks, robotics has become an increasingly common tool used by Flex drivers. According to several Flex drivers, many people are frustrated with the stress of shift work, which is often unpredictable, or that they just want to make more money. Some spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Amazon.

“Their business model is basically like someone throwing a fish into a bucket of lobster,” says Jonathan Lee Provost, a former Flex driver. “Each of us has to fight for a meal, and we actually have to manually click a few times every second until we see the blocks.” “

The driver also joined other Nearby Flexers Facebook groups, where people would alert group members when they posted their shifts, said Chad Polenz, an Amazon Flex driver and YouTube blogger. During his two years as a Flex driver in Florida, Polenz said he learned that Amazon typically abandons new flights on the app around 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“When shifts are available, you start learning, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll open the app and something will appear,” polenz says. “It’s completely unpredictable. “

An Amazon spokesman told CNBC that the company banned the use of robots. “We are committed to creating fair opportunities for our delivery partners to ensure that delivery targets are met,” the spokesman said. Using third-party tools to accept work creates an unfair advantage, violates our policies, and may result in removal from the Amazon Flex program. “

Amazon Flex drivers are using robots to 'deceptively' do more

However, not all robots work in the same way. A program called Zero Flex uses scripts to analyze network traffic between Flex applications and Amazon servers on a user’s device. When a script detects that a new block is available, it can crawl the blocks before publishing them to other users. Drivers pay up to $500 for access to the script, making it one of the more expensive ways.

A Flex driver told CNBC that he has used a variety of robots to help him get a neighborhood in his hometown of Miami, where he says there are a lot of Flexers, so the competition is getting fiercer. Once the script became too expensive, he began using a third-party app called Flex Utility, which cost about $20 to download from the Google Play Store.

Flexibility

Flex Utility uses the accessibility features of android phones to create virtual buttons that are overlaid on the Flex app. The Flex Utility tool refreshes the Flex application, filters out blocks that do not match the user’s search criteria, and then places the button on the appropriate blocks. Drivers can specify the type of block to crawl based on the pick-up center, the time and block type of the day.

The developerbehind of the Flex Utility application says it is “much faster” than humans because it can “filter, select and slide blocks in a millisecond, which takes at least a few seconds.”

The Flex Utility developer claims that his application did not violate Amazon’s terms of service because users had to manually click the Flex Utility button in the Flex application. Two Flex drivers using Flex Utility said they were not suspended by Amazon when they used the tool.

Amazon Flex drivers are using robots to 'deceptively' do more

In addition, there are devices called autotappers or block grabbers, which automate the physical actions of the clicking application. Drivers can buy equipment online, typically between $50 and $150. Although these devices violate Flex’s terms of service, they can even be available on Amazon’s own website. A quick search of “auto clicker” in the market reveals several lists, including a list titled “bot auto swiper”. Although Flex services are not always mentioned in the product description in the list, many reviews note that the device “makes it easier to access blocks.” “

Drivers say that while they appear to have high-tech designs, the devices don’t always work. In addition to Flex, Polenz has been involved in other jobs, including driving for Lyft and delivering orders for Instacart and Doordash. Flex, he says, is usually a “backup” job for him because he gets a lot of work from Instacart and Doordash.

Thanks to robots, drivers have a greater chance of getting into high-demand neighborhoods. In addition to Flex delivery, the application has also made changes to deliver orders from Whole Foods, Prime Now and Amazon Fresh. These packages are considered more valuable than other jobs because, unlike package delivery, customers can add tips to their orders. Drivers will tell bots to get only the services of Whole Foods, Prime Now and Amazon Fresh so they can grab the block first.

Drivers also use robots to restrict their neighborhoods to nearby warehouses, as the Flex app may send them to warehouses 50 miles away to pick up. Longer journeys mean wasting time and vehicles wear more. The faster the driver gets the job done, the faster they can deliver the next order. In response to the rise of robots, Amazon has reduced the refresh rate of Flex apps, according to drivers. Multiple drivers told CNBC that they believe that if clickblocks are clicked too fast, Amazon will be able to detect that they are using robots and “softly block” them, preventing them from seeing any new changes for a certain period of time. (Amazon did not immediately respond to inquiries about the speculation.) )

Developers have found ways to make their robots harder to discover. In many applications, users can specify how often they want the device to click. The auto-clicker also has settings that slow down the device’s tap screen. Not all members of the Flex community appreciate drivers trying to trick themselves into getting more shifts.

As Amazon cracks down on robots, some drivers say they are mistakenly marked for using robots. In addition, this is becoming increasingly difficult for drivers who do not use robots to get blocks, as they can only refresh the application a certain number of times per minute.

Omar Montes, a former Flex driver, says robots have become more complex since he first noticed them in 2017. At that time, the robot was limited to auto-clickers. Now, many drivers are paying for scripts, creating a “market itself that people enrich the production app.” It no longer looks like a level playing field, he says. “Once blocks become available and you get notifications on your phone, all the blocks are gone,” Montes said. You just can’t compete with them. “