Don’t Drop Dead After All

The US Postal Service set the Intertubes on fire last spring, after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced a new $6 billion contract that will saddle the agency with another generation’s worth of fossil fuel-powered delivery trucks. Or not, as the case may be. A storm of protest from electric truck fans seems to have turned the tide in favor of EVs, or maybe it was some flexibility built into the original contract. Either way, the stage has been set for more zero emission USPS vehicles to hit the road.

Where Are All The Electric Trucks?

The US Postal Service fleet faces a long, hard fleet electrification journey due to the massive size of its fleet. The transition to zero emission mobility has been made all the more difficult by a unique financial burden imposed by Congress dating back to 2006.

The agency’s 200,000 general delivery trucks could be the low hanging fruit of electrification for federal fleets, because many of them are 25 years old or more. However, prospects for a quick transition to electricity grew dim when former President Trump appointed DeJoy as Postmaster General in 2020. DeJoy’s various activities in competing delivery businesses seemed to indicate a less-than-determined interest in improving the Postal Service fleet or, for that matter, improving anything else about the Postal Service.

With that in mind, electrification advocates were disappointed last year, but not surprised, when DeJoy awarded a new $6 billion, 10-year contract for a proposed “Next Generation Delivery Vehicle” to replace the old gas burners with 165,000 new units, but failed to make electronics a primary goal.

“The vehicles will be equipped with either fuel-efficient internal combustion engines or battery electric powertrains and can be retrofitted to keep pace with advances in electric vehicle technologies,” is the wording of the USPS’s announcement, dated February 23, 2021.

That seemed to provide plenty of wiggle room for electric trucks, but a few months after that USPS submitted a draft Environmental Impact Statement indicating a floor of just 10% electric trucks, with the other 90% dedicated to gas.

Here They Are! Well, Some Of Them…

In between last August and last week, Congress finally passed a Postal Service reform bill that puts the agency on firmer financial footing. The last time we checked, the bill is still waiting for the President’s signature, but it seems that the Postal Service is already anticipating the reforms will smooth the road for more electric trucks than originally thought.

Last Thursday, USPS announced that it had placed an initial $2.98 billion order of 50,000 Next Generation Delivery Vehicles. The announcement leads off with the observation that”[the] Postal Service makes good on our pledge to accelerate our electric vehicle strategy by increasing the quantity of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) as our financial condition improves and as we refine our network and vehicle operating strategy.”

That remains to be seen, but it does appear that the Postal Service has already upped the ante on its electrification vision. According to the announcement, USPS took a look at its routes and determined electric trucks will account for 10,019 of the 50,000 new vehicles.

Doing the math, that is already more than 10%. USPS also adds that “the flexibility in the NGDV program allows for future increases in the mix of BEVs should additional funding become available from internal or other sources, and if the use case for BEVs continues to improve.”

Will USPS Get More Electric Trucks, Or Not?

20% is an improvement over 10%. Still, that’s almost 40,000 new gasmobiles right off the bat in that first order, and DeJoy has made it clear that he is more interested in getting the new vehicles in hand sooner rather than later, even if that means clinging to another 40,000 fossil fuel- powered trucks for another generation.

In the announcement, DeJoy re-issued points he has raised in the past, namely, that the existing vehicles are rolling driver safety hazards that need to be replaced as quickly as possible, that the up-front cost of a battery-electric vehicle is greater than a comparable gasmobile, and that the increased cargo space in the new vehicles will improve service, whether they are zero emission or not.

“The Postal Service generally receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations,” USPS also reminds us.

We know all that, but we also know that the financial elements underpinning DeJoy’s claims are more than a little out of whack. As reported by our friends over at The New York Times, the US Postal Service based on its decision in favor of gasmobiles on an estimated average of 29.9 miles per gallon for the new vehicles. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency ran its own numbers and came up with just 14.7 mpg, and only 8.6 mpg with the AC running.

The cost of gas is another factor. USPS apparently based its cost estimate on $2.19 a gallon, which is weird considering that gas is running at an average of more than $4.00 per gallon at the pump. Even accounting for a bulk discount, the figure of $2.19 appears way out of date.

The Fleet Electrification Advantage

Aside from the cost of gas, the insistence on gasmobiles is also out of step with the fleet electrification movement, which has been picking up steam as fleet managers become aware of the financial benefits of battery EVs.

Electric vehicles cost less to maintain than comparable gasmobiles. They also provide fleet owners with opportunities to participate in demand-response EV charging programs, microgrid formation, and other bottom line line related to the ownership of energy storage on wheels.

Even the US Army is beginning to dip a toe into the fleet electrification movement, partly on account of its interest in self-forming microgrids, and partly on its interest in moving away from tank-based warfare to emphasize smaller, quieter, and more nimble combat and reconnaissance vehicles.

That brings us around to the company that won the Postal Service contract, the well known military contractor Oshkosh Defense. The initial reaction from EV fans was a loud chorus of boos, since Oshkosh is not widely known as an EV manufacturer.

However, on closer inspection, it turns out that the company does have an electrification history. Oshkosh Defense is involved in the Army’s slow march into electrification, and corporate parent Oshkosh also has Pierce Volterra and other electrification branches under its umbrella. Pierce Volterra is known for collaborating on task-specific electrification projects including fire trucks. Oshkosh Defense has also explained its rather awkward design of the new USPS vehicles is aimed at facilitating a gas-to-electric switch when the opportunities arise.

That opportunity may arise sooner than DeJoy expects. Earlier this month, the USPS Inspector General issued a white paper that supports the case for rapid Postal Service fleet electrification, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: New general delivery truck for US Postal Service courtesy of Oshkosh Defense.


 

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