For China's food delivery workers, life can feel like a constant battle with algorithms, traffic police and disgruntled customers.
An essay detailing the hazardous work conditions of China's food delivery drivers went viral on the internet on Tuesday, causing a moment of national reckoning on algorithmic harm to people.
In China's populated urban hubs, one won't miss the army of express couriers speeding and honking on their scooters. Their reckless driving, according to the investigative report from China's "People" magazine, is largely a result of stringent algorithms that penalize late delivery; what's more, the machines fail to fully factor in real-life variables like weather and traffic, and often put drivers' lives at risk. Within hours, the story had gained more than 100,000 views and was shared widely and discussed on the WeChat messenger.
While food delivery platforms boast increasingly fast delivery thanks to state-of-the-art machine learning, the lofty goals the algorithms set for drivers are often attainable only by breaking traffic rules and working extended hours. Sitting indoors, customers tap on streamlined apps, detached from the dangerous delivery journey. To avoid bad reviews and wage cuts, drivers dash and honk pedestrians out of their way to be on time.
Within the first six months of 2019, Shanghai recorded 325 injuries and deaths involving food and parcel delivery drivers alone, with Alibaba's Ele.me and Tencent-backed Meituan, the food delivery leaders, accounting for nearly 70% of the accidents.
"Most people won't care if their order arrives two minutes sooner or 10 minutes late. Platforms can actually be more forgiving of delivery drivers. We are more patient than expected," said a reader comment with 33,000 likes.
On the flip side is an enormous market opportunity. The food ordering industry in China is estimated to reach 665 billion yuan ($97 billion) by 2020. A total of 398 million, or nearly 45% of China's internet users, ordered food online as of March. In contrast, online delivery penetration in the U.S. will reach about 9% by 2020.
Millions of drivers are powering China's food delivery economy, with nearly 4 million on Meituan by 2019 and 3 million on Ele.me at last count.
This isn't the first time that China has come to grips with safety for food delivery drivers. Following a series of road accidents in 2017, Chinese police ordered on-demand platforms to improve safety standards for drivers. A commentary from China's state newspaper at the time called for "more humane" management for take-out couriers.
Alibaba has taken notice of the latest critique. About 12 hours after the article published, Ele.me announced it will add a feature that allows customers to voluntarily extend wait time by five or 10 minutes. It also promised that the platform won't penalize couriers with good credit and service history even when they are occasionally late.
Meituan, Ele.me's main rival, responded on Wednesday saying it's optimizing its system to ensure driver safety through measures like extra wait time in case of adverse weather and slow elevators.
Updated the story on September 10, 2020 with Meituan comment.