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The Spy Who Fired Me

The human costs of workplace monitoring

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In recent years, many companies have followed UPS’s lead: telematics is expected to become a $30 billion industry by 2018. David Cozzens is the CEO of Telogis, a company that provides telematics to commercial-trucking fleets, including those of AT&T and Coca-Cola. He recalled the thrill he felt entering the field only seven years ago: “It was big data. It was the Internet of things. It was cloud computing; it was mobile; it was really a new market, with low penetration.” He champions the technology as a way to boost workforce productivity while also being environmentally friendly. UPS claims that in 2010 telematics saved 1.7 million driving miles, 15 million minutes of idling time, and 103,000 gallons of gas. (Total daily gas usage in the United States is 368 million gallons.) Cozzens said some Telogis clients have realized efficiencies that allowed them to eliminate as many as 10 percent of their vehicles. “Project that on a broad scale. Those are big numbers in terms of sustainability.”

A Telogis system plugs into a vehicle’s electronic control system, where it pulls information on everything from braking time to windshield-wiper use; this is combined with GPS and weather data, current and historical traffic information, and specific notices about, say, tunnel height or washed-out bridges that are collected from the 140,000 vehicles using the company’s navigation software. Some Telogis clients use the systems to save fuel, by reducing idling time and optimizing routes; others seek to maximize use of their fleet. Still others are looking for productivity improvements from their drivers. Industry adoption of telematics, a Telogis spokeswoman estimates, is around 20 percent to date. “Now it’s starting to be, ‘I have to have it,’ ” Cozzens said. “ ‘How are we going to harness this data? We’re not going to be successful if we don’t do it, because our competitors are going to.’ ”

In workshops at a National Association of Fleet Administrators conference in Minneapolis last spring, the rush to adopt telematics was apparent. Firms that had already installed the systems had done it so quickly that managers were struggling with implementation. Forty-four telematics vendors were exhibitors at the expo, and there were entire workshops devoted to “K.P.I.’s” — key performance indicators — in which fleet managers gathered in the hope of learning how to adapt to these new systems. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” a slide in one workshop explained. After a list of dozens of potential K.P.I.’s flashed on the screen, the presenter said, “As you can see, there are a lot.” Another presenter said that managers are exerting “more pressure for more detail. More, more, more!” Someone expressed a wish for a “killer K.P.I.,” a supermetric that could boil all of the data down into a single big, shiny, decisive number.

At one point the conversation shifted to drivers’ reactions to the new technology, which surveys have shown to be overwhelmingly negative. One poll of fleet managers in the U.K. found that almost 80 percent had experienced resistance when implementing telematics; half of them had experienced a “significant amount.” I spoke with one woman at the conference who was a fleet manager for a firm that supplies hospitals with rental equipment such as ventilators. When she introduced telematics to her fleet, she said, drivers worried that they’d get fired for going to the bathroom or stopping for lunch or speeding. Many were. Some supervisors, who were now able to see real-time data on speed and idle time, “probably watched it more than they needed to,” she said, and responded “with a harshness.”

Another woman told a workshop that at her firm, drivers got paid by how many jobs they delivered. “So we’re telling them to produce as much as you can — but don’t speed. It’s a catch-22.” Steve Jastrow, a consultant at GE Capital Fleet Services, advised managers to describe telematics as a safety initiative, just as UPS had done. “How you present it to the driver may be different than how you present it to senior management,” he said.

“The important thing is where the power lies,” said Zingha Lucien, another fleet consultant. “Drivers might not be happy being measured, but in the end they will yield.”

Jeff Rose saw evidence of this in a Daily Recap I obtained from a UPS center in New York. The document contains a summary of each driver’s metrics. He pointed out that all of the drivers were over their allotted times by at least an hour or two, except for a handful of trainees, some of whom came in as much as two hours under. Rose told me that there’s no way drivers could be beating their time quotas by that much without sprinting the entire day and recklessly cutting corners on safety.

A UPS spokesperson told me that telematics has improved safety overall and lifted seat-belt compliance to an “almost perfect” 98.8 percent. But UPS drivers tell a different story. One wrote on an online forum about a new hire who was beating his quota by an hour and a half to two hours every day. “This guy has literally told me he will buckle the seat belt behind him and not wear it,” he wrote, saying the driver also has high backing speeds, an “absurd amount of bulkhead door events” — driving with the back door open — and many misdelivered packages.

“People get intimidated and they work faster,” Rose told me. “It’s like when they whip animals. But this is a mental whip.”

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is the editor of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and was a 2013–2014 Alicia Patterson Fellow.

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