The neighborhood mail truck is a relic of a vintage time — before mobile phones, back when Winona Ryder was the reigning screen queen and most millennials didn’t yet exist.
The boxy Grumman Long Life Vehicle has delivered letters and packages since it was designed for the U.S. Postal Service in the 1980s. Of the 215,000 mail trucks in rotation, 140,000 are at least two decades old.
A 2014 audit from the office of the USPS inspector general found that the current fleet can only meet delivery needs through fiscal year 2017.
So this fall, USPS is pushing forward with a refresh.
The agency awarded $37.4 million in contracts last month to six suppliers to produce 50 prototype mail vehicles. The companies — AM General, Karsan, Mahindra, Oshkosh, Utilimaster and VT Hackney — can work with other suppliers to create models featuring upgrades and innovations such as hybrid and alternative fuel technologies.
In a year or so, the USPS will begin testing the vehicles for six months in a range of climates, topographies, population centers and delivery environments. The agency is also planning to consider commercially available vehicles.
“The next generation of vehicles can incorporate the latest safety and environmental bells and whistles, which will protect employees, cut down on fuel costs and help the Postal Service meet its sustainability goals,” according to the inspector general’s office. “Also, given the growth in packages, new vehicle designs could address the challenges of larger and irregularly shaped items.”
Designs for these so-called Next Generation Delivery Vehicle Prototypes aren’t publicly available yet, but speculation is strong about what they entail.
In a tongue-in-cheek manner, car enthusiast content provider Motor1 and British auto lender Varooma recently dreamed up a mail-carrying AM General military-grade Hummer capable of traversing any weather or terrain while loaded with 5,100 pounds of postal freight. A Tesla Model X could be reworked as a delivery agent while helping the USPS slash its fuel costs.
The Motor1 and Varooma team also suggested using the Mercedes-Benz Vision Van concept, which features launch and landing pads for drones, pavement delivery robots and autopilot capabilities. They imagined using a Ferrari GTC4Lusso for speedy, stylish delivery. And another option: a USPS Nikola One Semi, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, producing no emissions, capable of hauling 80,000 pounds of mail in its trailer.
But the version posted by automotive designer Sol You on artist portfolio network Behance earlier this year probably hews closer to reality. His vision features a ramp that extends once the sliding back door opens as well as a side-door flap that lifts to reveal packages rotating on a belt system.
The wrap-around windows and higher sitting position in the front allow the driver more visibility. To boost convenience, You positioned cup holders and power plugs in and around the dashboard. The interior of the truck also includes foldable shelves, an interior camera and at least one skylight.
You’s design addresses some of the many complaints drivers and experts have with the current Grumman design. The fuel efficiency is terrible, averaging some 10 miles per gallon, and the vehicle requires constant maintenance and has no air bags, backup cameras or anti-lock brakes, according a 2014 post on the inspector general’s website.
Among the 140 comments affixed to the post were suggestions to adapt Ford Transit Connect or Ram ProMaster vans to mail delivery, add air conditioning to combat interior temperatures that sometimes reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, build in GPS and mapping programs and more.
The USPS has been strapped for cash for years, which has many advocates arguing that the agency should focus on customizing a fleet of vehicles already commercially available instead of seeking out brand new designs.
Using mixed, modified, off-the-shelf vehicles could save the USPS nearly $2 billion compared with its usual acquisition process, according to the nonpartisan advocacy group Securing America’s Future Energy. A bulk purchase of specialty vehicles blocks the agency from incorporating new technologies, adjusting to market dynamics and benefitting from resale value over the life of the fleet.
“There is a good economic reason why private-sector companies such as FedEx and UPS, and nearly all foreign postal services, use tailored, off-the-shelf fleets as opposed to purpose-built ones,” said Robbie Diamond, chief executive of the advocacy group, in a statement.