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18 Secrets of UPS Drivers

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You may have a good relationship with your UPS driver, but how much do you really know about his or her job? The brown-clad United Parcel Service workers deliver more than 15 million packages a day to more than 220 countries and territories around the world; they even deliver to the North Pole. But what’s it really like to be a UPS driver? Here are some little-known facts from drivers who did their time.

1. They’re always being watched.

UPS knows time is money, and it is obsessed with using data to increase productivity. Jack Levis, UPS's director of process management, told NPR that “one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million,” and “one minute of idle per driver per day is worth $500,000 of fuel at the end of the year.” The hand-held computer drivers carry around, called a DIAD (short for Delivery Information Acquisition Device), tracks their every move. Ever wondered why your UPS man can’t stick around to hear your life story? He probably has between 150 and 200 stops to make before the end of the day, and he’s being timed. “You’re trained to have a sense of urgency,” says Wendy Widmann, who drove for 14 years. “Be polite, but you gotta go.” Sensors inside the truck monitor everything from whether the driver’s seat belt is buckled to how hard they’re braking, and if the truck’s doors are open or closed. All this data is compiled for UPS analysts who use it to come up with time-saving tactics.

2. They go to bootcamp.

All drivers must attend and graduate from a specialized training class called “Integrad,” which teaches them everything they need to know out in the field. They learn how to handle heavy boxes, which are filled with cinder blocks to simulate real packages. They’re taught how to start the truck with one hand while buckling up with the other to save time. And the “slip and fall simulator” teaches them to walk safely in slick conditions. There’s even a miniature delivery route complete with tiny houses “where they will drive in their truck and make simulated deliveries at houses,” says UPS representative Dan Cardillo.

3. Driving in reverse is discouraged.

Except for backing into a loading dock, “we generally will tell them the first rule of backing up is to avoid it,” Cardillo says. The way UPS sees it, backing up increases the likelihood that a driver will unintentionally bump into something (or someone). UPS driver Bill Earle told NPR that he rarely goes a single day without being told he’s backing up too often or too quickly.

4. Good drivers get rewarded…

...with gifts from a catalog. When a driver goes five years without an accident, they get to choose an item from retail stores’ catalogs, including Michael C. Fina. “The more years of safe driving you had, the better the gifts got,” says Kevin Dyer, a former driver who spent 38 years behind the wheel. “One of the first few years I got a highway safety kit. It had everything in there: flares, booster cables, flashlight, tape, you name it. I got a set of golf clubs one year. I wore them out.” One “avoidable” accident bumps you back to zero. “I went seven years and then I backed into a small tree,” says Widmann. “Then I had to start from the beginning again. I was just getting to the good gifts like bikes and gas grills.”

5. Great drivers get a bomber jacket.

A driver who goes 25 years without an accident is inducted into the UPS “Circle of Honor” and receives a special patch and a bomber jacket.

6. The trucks are “big brown microwaves.”

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They don’t have air conditioning, so drivers run their routes with the doors open to stay cool. “It is cold in winter and hot in the summer,” Widmann says. “It was wonderful to have 50 and 60 degree days.”

7. Oh, and they’re not trucks.

At UPS, they’re referred to exclusively as “package cars.”

8. They have to supply their own music.

UPS “package cars” don’t come with radios, so if you want to listen to music, you have to pack your own player.

9. Dog bites are part of the job.

“Most UPS drivers are attacked by dogs,” says one former New Orleans-based UPS driver. “What you do is jump on the hood of the nearest vehicle and don’t move. There were some drivers that sat on the hood of a car for an hour or more.” Of course, UPS doesn’t train its drivers to jump on top of cars to avoid dogs, but it does tell them to shout “UPS!” before entering the property so dogs won’t be caught off guard. Their handheld devices can also keep track of houses that might have dangerous dogs on the property and warn drivers ahead of time. “We wanna protect our drivers,” Cardillo says.

10. They wish you’d meet them halfway.

Want to make your UPS driver’s job easier? In a Reddit thread, one driver said, “if you see them pulling up and you aren't in the middle of something, meet them half way, or walk up to their truck.” Every extra step adds a little bit of time to their day. “If 10 of my 150 stops do that in a day I would get home 10-15 minutes earlier and actually get to spend time with my family.”

11. Facial hair is frowned upon.

You’ll probably never see a UPS driver with a beard. Mustaches are permitted, but can’t grow below the corners of the mouth. And men's hair mustn’t touch the top of the collar.

12. They make good money.

On average, drivers today are paid $30 an hour, according to Glassdoor. That’s double the amount they made in the mid '90s, according to NPR and the head of the Teamsters union, which represents UPS. At the end of his 38-year tenure, Dyer says he was making more than $75,000 a year.

13. And they get decent tips.

Some drivers get cash, especially around the holidays. Wayne Turner, a former driver in California was once greeted at the door by a butler who gave him and his partner each $50. “It was the strangest thing, but we made an extra $50 that day.” But more frequently, drivers get non-monetary tips like wine and food. Occasionally, they’ll get random (but valuable!) stuff: “I had a place that made permanent air filters that you can rinse out,” Turner says. “They gave me those any time I needed one. Those were selling at the time for $65 or $75. A construction company gave me a piece of 16-foot wood that would have cost hundreds of dollars.”

14. Seniority means better routes.

More tenured drivers get the privilege of bidding for the routes they want. The best routes, employees say, cover lots of ground but have few stops. So rural routes are often run by employees who have done their time.

15. They don't turn left.

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By obsessively tracking its drivers (see #1), UPS found that "a significant cause of idling time resulted from drivers making left turns, essentially going against the flow of traffic," according to Elizabeth Rasberry, a former UPS public relations manager. Drivers are instead encouraged to drive in right-hand loops to get to their destination.

Today, many of the routes are designed to avoid left turns, and UPS says the policy has saved 100 million gallons of gas and reduced carbon emissions by 100,000 metric tons since 2004. The habit sticks with drivers long after they've handed in the keys to their big brown truck. Dyer says, "Even today I’ll sit in traffic and I’ll kind of talk to the car in front of me and say, 'Turn right to go left!'"

16. They’re judging you.

“UPS drivers see a lot,” one former driver says. And they’re not just talking about making judgments based on packages. UPS drivers can discern a lot about your life through a cracked door. “We make instant judgments about you. We see if you have a maid. We know what kind of food you’re cooking, or if you have a dog. We know if you have orgies at your house. We can tell when someone’s getting a divorce.”

17. Yes, people try to seduce them.

“There will always be someone on your route who is interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with you,” a former driver says. “The male drivers have stories about women who come to the door dressed in a negligee, and the women experience the same with the opposite sex. It happened to me twice.”

18. They deliver some odd things.

A few notable deliveries: In 1987, UPS delivered an iceberg chunk roughly the size of a fridge to a children’s museum in Venezuela. In 2007, two whales were shipped from Taiwan to Atlanta. And in 2008, a group of 2,200-year-old Chinese terracotta warriors and horses were shipped via UPS to four American museums for exhibition.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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