Amazon, Drone Home!

Look up there! Is it a bird? A plane? That new duvet cover I ordered? Jeff Bezos’s drone delivery plan isn’t any less likely than the system we already have.

A new poll out last weekend delivered the bad news that Americans don’t trust one another anymore. Only a third of those surveyed by AP-GfK  said that most people can be trusted, down from half of us in 1972. It’s a sad state of affairs.

And yet I find our nation to be, by and large, incredibly trusting. I live in a small town where the median income is just over $35,500 — not exactly a fortune by any estimate. And yet I think nothing of ordering items online and having them delivered via UPS or FedEx to my house — even though there’s nobody there all day long. The bags or boxes sit on my front porch, in full view not only of neighbors, but of scores of high-school and middle-school kids who traipse past on their way home. And I’ve never lost anything yet. It’s enough to make a citizen proud.

But now, something has occurred that’s made me reconsider the complacency with which I’ve always approached online ordering. A month or so ago, my husband ordered a new laptop. A few days later, on the evening on which the online tracker showed it to have been delivered, he came home from work and found it hadn’t. No box on the porch. He started making himself some dinner. At 6:30 p.m., a woman with a strong Jamaican accept appeared at the front door. Doug answered her knock, and the woman explained that she was a UPS driver and that she’d somehow lost the package she was supposed to deliver to him.

She had on no uniform. She wasn’t driving a truck. Doug wasn’t sure exactly what to do about her. She went on to explain that she’d had another delivery a few blocks away, and perhaps she’d delivered Doug’s package there — she wasn’t sure. So she was going to go to that house and wait for whoever lived there to come home, so she could ask if they’d gotten a package that didn’t belong to them.

“Your delivery wasn’t anything expensive, was it?” she asked Doug. Her eyes got very wide when he explained it was a computer. “Oh, they’ll make me pay if I can’t find it,” she said, and rushed off down the block.

Doug went back to making dinner and thought about the odd encounter. Being a naturally suspicious sort, he started to worry that the woman might be pulling some sort of scam, though what sort he couldn’t imagine. So he took the precaution of calling the UPS number on his online tracker email.

The fellow he spoke to recognized Doug’s description of the driver right away. But he couldn’t say where Doug’s computer was, since it wasn’t on the front porch. The woman didn’t come back. So the next day, Doug called the UPS man again. By now, they were on a first-name basis. Maybe the computer was still on a truck somewhere, the man said. Maybe the Jamaican driver would be able to find it. Doug found himself increasingly grateful that he’d insured the package. He let the seller know that it hadn’t arrived but that UPS was trying to track it down. He wondered what the people down the street might think about their new computer that they hadn’t ordered. He thought about what he would do if UPS dropped a new computer that he hadn’t ordered in his lap. He thought about the UPS driver having to reimburse her employer for the cost of the computer. It was a lot to take in.

The computer didn’t show up that day, either. Doug made the phone rounds again, twice, morning and evening. By now, he was buddy-buddy with two UPS supervisors. He was also pretty well reconciled to ordering another computer. What really ticked him off was having to wait for it to arrive. He had work to do! He was much less angry and much more forgiving than I would have been if it had been my missing computer, which is one reason I married him.

Doug was dogged about calling to ask UPS about his order. On the fourth day after the Jamaican woman came to the door, the computer turned up on our front porch. There was no explanation, no note, no apologetic driver. No damage to the box. No visible signs of tampering or untaping. It wasn’t there, and then it was there, and Doug was glad. Glad that he could get back to work, glad that he didn’t have to go to the trouble of ordering another, glad that the UPS driver wouldn’t be out hundreds of bucks. It was a win-win, somehow.

Except that it has fatally shaken our faith in the integrity of home delivery. Sure, the package got here. But — where was it? Who had it? How had the system broken down? No one could tell us these things. No one even seemed interested in exploring them, really. What was the problem? Doug got his computer. He wanted explanations now, too?

But … what about those lengthy order numbers? The sophisticated online tracking we always dutifully use? Was it all smoke and mirrors? That the package had arrived in the end was only more disconcerting, considering the gaps no one could explain.

And then we read about Jeff Bezos’s plan to use drone baskets to deliver Amazon products in urban areas. Called “Prime Air,” the drone delivery service is slated to begin as soon as four or five years from now. Here’s how MIT’s Andrew McAfee envisioned it in an article in the New York Times: “Amazon drives a big truck to the outskirts of town, unloads the drones, and they go run a bunch of final drops. The roads will be less crowded. You’ll have less pollution.” Tech analyst Tim Bajarin told the Associated Press that drone delivery could “rewrite the rules of retail.” Another win-win!

But then the AP article goes on to note a plethora of possible pitfalls for the use of drones: FAA rules! Safety concerns! Insurance! Bureaucratic red tape! Collision avoidance technology! Battery recharging! Doug and I will likely be dead and gone before we ever see a drone alight on our porch. For the foreseeable future, I guess we’re stuck relying on the kindness of strangers, relentless phone calls and the occasional mysterious Jamaican to bring our packages home.